When less should be more
The VP of Design at Uber is mentioned by Fast Company recently as saying that in 2018 he “is to introduce a more empathic and considered approach to the company and the product.” The emphatic ‘more’ on empathy triggered my interest. I am aware as I pick phrases, original context and intent may get lost!
More empathy is bewildering. Let us examine it critically! A child at a buffet stocking up only on desserts is an indulgence we may empathize with while justifying, let the kid have a break! Or, poor child, little fun once in a while wont hurt! Then there is the non-indulgent empathy that goes deeper, saying I care for you and your well-being. You may have a scoop of butter scotch ice cream with caramel topping, but first finish the salad on your plate.
When we design product and services and at the same time traverse complex emotive zones, I wonder if there is a correlation between creative imagination and empathy. Do we need to artificially pump up empathy to get into a creative stupor, like Aldous Huxley may suggest; to rally the creative forces within and unleash on the problem at hand to deliver the oooh of a user experience. In the case of business problem solving, a rational justification of what seems to be naturally right thing to do. Be good! This self trip in an enhanced state of happiness and empathy, where you readily give and accept free hugs, because you believe; of course with the aid of substances perhaps or with a design thinking process instead, which can also render one euphoric!
What distinguishes ‘caring-empathy’ is that it come from within, naturally, although it sounds mystical, and not what Plato would have expounded. Before we sort the ‘artificial-empathy’ vs ‘caring/genuine-empathy’ let us examine what role empathy plays. Is empathy a means to acquire knowledge, or is empathy about deploying knowledge (and logic) to experience emotion (I refer this post by Betty Stoneman — Plato’s Empathy? Qualifying the Appetitive Aspect of Plato’s Tripartite Soul). User researchers and Design Thinking practitioners should know better or at least aware of their intent while investigating.
This tautological reference to a caring-empathy is an important distinction. Especially, as many are starting to get weary of the noun empathy, thanks to Design Thinking drumming, exhorting executives to turn on empathy…at least for the duration of a DT workshop they participate in. Empathy captured in a complex array of multi coloured post-its! (I too have indulged in these rituals).
More worrisome is the commodification of empathy, visible in media, and we get a daily dose, anytime a sensational event is reported. Fatimah Suganda, a researcher from Indonesia pointed out the tradeoff between media striving for readership/audience boost Vs. informational and educational story in her story “The Commoditization of Empathy in Media Coverage on Engeline’s Death.” Ironically, its this very approach to raising empathy that could lead to its dysfunction! I sense I am generalizing, but, nevertheless its a perspective.
So, I ask: Does ‘Artificial empathy’ lead to indulgent design, while ‘Caring empathy’ delivers good design?