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Creative Team
Digital, UX Design


A reflection on selective empathy and product design

To begin with, empathy is a very common word in design today. If we search for empathy and design, we can find a lot of content about it. There are many texts and articles talking about the power of empathy in UX design and also how to make an innovative business with it. Empathy came as a great promise to improve the design process, to create better products, and also to increase business profit.

When we look at the definitions of empathy, we can see that many results are related to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In design, we use this empathy to develop products that solve all of the needs and problems of others.

So, I would like to ask: Is it really possible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

Yale University psychologist and professor, Paul Bloom, who wrote a book call Against Empathy, said in an interview why he believes empathy is overrated:

You naturally empathize with people who in some way are part of your circle, who look like you, who maybe share your ethnicity. So, for example, if you base your charitable giving choices on empathy, you find yourself inevitably giving to people who [are like you], and ignoring the plight of thousands, maybe millions of others.

With that in mind, I recently read a book, The Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher, which talks about the Airbnb trajectory. One of the crises shown in the book is precisely racial discrimination within the platform.

In order to provide a better level of reliability, hosts were encouraged to put their pictures on their profiles. However, they didn’t take into account the racist world in which we live and how this feature could have a negative impact. Michael Luca, Harvard professor assistant, conducted research which showed that black people have to charge 12% more than white people in equivalent properties. Furthermore, guests with black sounding names were 16% less accepted by the hosts. When we think in this case, we should notice that we are talking about a company founded by designers that seem to have a very mature design process. Therefore, do you think that the racial discrimination possibility was not identified before because the design team did not use empathy?

To me, it seems that Paul Bloom’s statement makes sense, even when we look at the design world. We just need to look around and observe the products that we have, both physical and digital. The truth is these products have been made for the same people, white people, young, middle class, cisgender, with a standard body shape because they have been made by the same people, white people, young, middle class, cisgender, with an ideal body shape. This becomes very clear when we look at the 2019 AIGA Design Census, which showed that 52% of designers are between 20 and 30 years old, 76% do not identify themselves as LGBTQIA+, and 71% are white.

Putting all of this into account and after 4 years of psychological therapy, where I spent a lot of time reflecting about empathy, I now believe that empathy is being able to sensitize to a situation experienced by someone else. It is the ability to look at another reality and feel touched by it. However, I do not believe that we can feel exactly like the other person, even if we were in the same situation. Because each person has a very different life, we experience particular situations that made us as we are and no one can reproduce that.

Furthermore, I do believe that we can easily empathize with someone more like us or someone with a story related to ours in some way. Even when I look for my motivation to write about empathy, I would probably never do it, if this subject was not very present in my life so many times and in so many therapy sessions. According to Rajvi Desai article, we value the suffering of people like us better, because we understand others by ethnicity, skin tone, class, religion and we fail to understand theirs lived experience.

Now you are probably asking: are you saying that we should not use empathy as a design tool?

I do think it is really incredible how user-centered design is growing with more people conducting research, usability testing, and using so many other techniques. However, I do not think it is possible to use empathy to put ourselves in the user’s shoes, because if we keep doing that we will design only for people like us.

In conclusion, I believe the solution is that we need to be aware of our selective empathy and fight more for a diverse team. Only then, we can achieve products that really empathize with everyone.

SOURCE: UX Collective
Eduarda Leao – Product designer, capricorn and huge fan of the Lord of the Rings