Donald Norman, a powerful figure in the history of user experience design, recently triggered some heated conversation when he published a provocative article, “Why I Don’t Believe in Empathic Design.” In it, he offers a strong critique of empathic design. Here’s a taste of his words:

I approve of the spirit behind the introduction of empathy into design, but I believe the concept is impossible, and even if possible, wrong. The reason we often talk about empathy in design is that we really need to understand the people that we’re working for. The idea is that, essentially, you’re in a person’s head and understand how they feel and what they think.

In my opinion that’s impossible, and here’s why. If I’m designing a medical rehabilitation device for a unique person, I could argue it’s crucial to really understand their likes and dislikes, their personality and issues, and how they approach the world. But that’s relatively rare. Most of the time, in our field, we’re devising products and services that are being used by lots of people — hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions. In Facebook’s case it’s even billions. This means that understanding the individual person is actually not going to be very useful.

Point well taken: when it comes to designing for millions people, it’s not possible to get into the minds of millions of people. But when was it ever possible to do that? I feel there is a disconnect in Donald Norman’s point of view where he equates “heads and minds” with empathy. In fact, I believe empathy is a spectrum. Achieving empathy is not a black-and-white action. And fortunately, tools such as design thinking and lean innovation exist to help designers achieve degrees of empathy.

His critique does serve an important purpose, which is to challenge designers to think carefully about what we mean by empathic design. Here are some points to consider:

What Definition of “Empathy” Are You Using?

Norman writes, “We can’t get into the heads and minds of millions of people, and moreover we don’t have to: we simply have to understand what people are trying to do and then make it possible. We should not fool ourselves into thinking we can get into their heads.”

Agreed! A good designer really cannot “get in people’s heads.” In fact, empathic design is about taking the time and prioritizing learning from the user themselves so we can understand what activities they are trying to accomplish and how we might make that better for them — saving time, money, or effort.

For a lot of us unfamiliar with the idea of how to gain empathy during product development, the process is a case of taking baby steps. When Donald Norman references getting in the heads and minds of people, he underscores just how preposterous the notion is. Good designers aren’t trying to replicate the brains of the end users (though I would argue that is what AI is all about and accomplishing with technology). Our starting point is about understanding how they work and do things and what emotions are tied to what they can or cannot accomplish; ultimately defining what relationship they desire to have with a solution in a given problem space. Trying to get inside minds is too much, too soon. Getting into a point along the spectrum of empathy may be enough.

Needs and Abilities

He writes, “You have to create things that are adjustable and variable, but even then, if you exclude the top five or ten percent, you can still be excluding a million people. So it’s really important that we address people’s real needs and abilities.”

Agreed again! As we design for more intelligent products, we explore what people do and say and how that spotlights

  • The desired relationship they need with a given product to be engaged and successful.
  • The top values they naturally instill in driving their ability to meet those needs.

When designers are in the field, we must watch end users with our eyes. We must identify new and novel abilities that have resulted from inadequate systems, process, and environments. These new and novel abilities are starting points for identifying an unmet opportunity to provide better to this population.

Into the Subconscious

Norman makes a great and fascinating point about the interplay between the conscious and subconscious mind:

 . . . I often don’t understand the things I do myself. It’s amazing how little empathy I have for myself. In part, that’s because most of our behaviors creep in subconsciously. The conscious mind then watches over it and tries to rationalize and make sense of it. Often the next day we wonder “why did I say that?” or “why did I do that and not this other thing?” My conscious mind has little or no empathy with my subconscious.

I would agree that people aren’t conscious of their own behaviors, beliefs, and action. But this limitation is not a reason to throw our hands in the air and give up. If people don’t know those behaviors, how we as designers going to ask them to discuss those behaviors? We still need to try. And by observing them, we can learn. It’s our job to find out through a variety of ways. Through empathic exercises, we understand their rationality behind their thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

The Designer as Facilitator

The part of the article that really resonates for me is his discussion of designers as facilitators. He says that when you talk with people, they don’t always identify the underlying issues that a designer might be able to address. Instead, people often mention symptoms of problems. He suggests that designers act as “facilitators, guides, and mentors.” He writes, “We need an approach that’s top-down, the expert knowledge, and bottom-up, the community people. This method will have to differ from community to community around the world.”

In fact, the designer-as-facilitator can indeed bring about an empathic solution – so long as designers are part of a larger team that includes engineers, strategists, product engineers, customer experience executives, and others who have a stake in the success of a product. The goal of facilitation is to bridge the gap between build a solution using the knowledge and expertise that lies in the folks experiencing the challenge, At Moonshot, we take the facilitator approach to help businesses discover, design, and develop products that meet human wants and needs. And yes, customers don’t always identify underlying, longer term problems – at first. A team of facilitators can fill the gap using product development tools such as design thinking and lean innovation, to bring out those underlying wants and needs we equate with empathic design.

In summary, I thank Donald Norman for questioning a proven point in an effort to get us to stop and reevaluate whether we are being complacent with human-centered design. For me, it highlights that isn’t bad to continually challenge it in an effort to make it a relevant mindset, despite the changing nature of technology and human behavior. His provocative point sheds light on how empathic design is not black and white but a spectrum of grays. I feel the goal isn’t about getting into and replicating the thought-processes of each user but introducing the behavior of gaining empathy through facilitation. At Moonshot, we favor stepping in to the arena of teaching and guiding folks to take the first step – get outside of their office walls to experience their product by not only listening with their ears, but with their eyes too.

Amish Desai

Amish Desai

Head of Experiences 

Bitnami