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Empathy and good design

Empathy as a design thinking quality

Some years ago I ordered a set of IDEO Method Cards. There are 51 cards, each describing a method of inspiring good designs that put humans at the centre of the process. I was struck by the innovative ways of getting humans to interact with the projects and briefs. I say innovative to reveal my own bias – the methods could equally be described as genius. IDEO has played an important role in popularizing design thinking and prioritizing human thoughts, values, behaviours and yes, emotions, into their design process.

Recently one of the EITC coaches, Kim, mentioned that he had seen a 60 Minutes special on IDEO founder David Kelley. Kim was impressed by the central role of empathy in the IDEO design process. That conversation got me to thinking about the method cards. Certainly many of the methods outlined in the method cards are built as aids to help one think about and appreciate the feelings and experiences of other people: the cards are a kind of aid to focusing on empathy. But how many other EQ dimensions, besides empathy, are built into the various design methods?

Design method ideas from IDEO

As a first approximation to answering this, I flipped through the deck looking for instances where one of the fifteen dimensions was being made into an explicit part of the exercise. There were three dimensions of emotional intelligence, other than empathy, that jumped out at me. They were: reality testing, social responsibility and problem solving.

Together, with empathy, these appear to make up the, shall we say, EQ component of the IDEO methods. It is as if the method cards are creating explicit ways for users to focus on or practice these emotional intelligence capacities.

Reality testing was represented because many of the methods ask us to let go of our presumptions of how things are, or how things ought to be, and to look in new ways at the real state of things, especially human behaviour and material sciences. Social responsibility is represented in the methods, because the various methods are continually asking how to make things better, to care about the often small details of the human experience and to work to improve them. And problem solving is evident because the methods push us outside of common traps in thinking and decision making that can get in the way of effective problem solving. And even though empathy appears to be the most prevalent capacity that is aided by the method cards, it is perhaps problem solving that is the over arching role of the method cards.

My insights are tentative and qualitative. And yet they are somewhat testable. The hypothesis that I would form by looking at the IDEO Method Cards is that product designers are best served by having strengths in problem solving, social responsibility, reality testing and empathy. Given a large enough number of designers, we could theoretically look for statistical evidence of these strengths. That’s fun to think about. Regardless, David Kelley appears to agree that at least one of these capacities, empathy, is central to good design.

Here’s Kelley’s TED talk from 2012 about, among other things, empathy.

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