Building Empathy (Part 3 of our Human-Centered Design Series)

This post is the third in a series dedicated to helping readers understand design thinking (or human-centered design) and its application through the United Way Hub for Social Innovation.

Building empathy requires us to engage our audience in conversation.   (photo by Bewakoof.com via Unsplash)

Building empathy requires us to engage our audience in conversation.
(photo by Bewakoof.com via Unsplash)

In the post titled Charting an Exploration of Discovery, part 2 of our 6-part series on the Human-Centered Design methodology, we discussed the considerations needed to charter or launch a human-centered design project. Today, we will dive a bit into arguably the most important element of human-centered design, building empathy.

Design Thinking Diamond (top) and Bulleted Basics (bottom), two design-thinking models.

Design Thinking Diamond (top) and Bulleted Basics (bottom), two design-thinking models.

As the secondary title of the methodology suggests (human-centered design), the approach of design-thinking wholeheartedly focuses on the humans for whom a project team is trying to develop solutions.

For the John P. Guerry Hub for Social Innovation at United Way of Greater Chattanooga, our goal is to develop solutions for households and individuals in our geographical footprint who experience barriers and challenges that limit their ability or capacity to independently thrive, especially in relation to their financial stability and access to healthcare and cradle-to-career education opportunities. In order to appropriately develop ideas and solutions on these challenges, human-centered design intentionally seeks input from the “end-users” in order to understand their needs, pain points, and motivations.

Building empathy is the foundation of design thinking.

What is Empathy

When a person sees a fellow resident in need, they may be emotionally drawn to respond by desiring to act on that person’s behalf. This is called sympathy. But being sympathetic isn’t enough to appropriately resolve most issues.

Human nature leads us to view a problem and automatically want to begin creating ideas and solutions to address the problem. However, what often occurs is that solutions are created that do not address the specific motivations and needs of those whom we are trying to solve in the first place. This is generally a result of a lack of deeper understanding.

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s experiences through deep knowledge of their perspectives and motivations. It is attained largely by going out and intentionally spending time listening to and observing those in need. One important step in building empathy is looking inwardly and honestly consider the assumptions we have about a person or situation related to the problem. Then, go out and spend time with people in their context to learn and test those assumptions.

The John P. Guerry Hub for Social Innovation utilizes several methods and tools to appropriately build understanding. Some focus on direct conversations with our impact audience, while others focus on observing the environmental and contextual influences around them as well.

By putting people in the center of our problem-solving efforts, we not only gain deeper understanding of their challenges, but we also empower them to be an integral part of the solution. Chances are they will experience a more transformative change in the process.