Start with Observation First, Not Wishing for Empathy

Anyone can do design thinking and that’s a double edge sword with blessings and dangers. The technique can help many. And the technique can also be reduced to repetitive white-boarding sessions and post-it notes where we (the creators of the product) spend many hours imaging the user’s mind, needs and wants from our perspective. For many years, I ran and shared design thinking sessions for marketing and product teams. Everything seemed perfect but a conversation with an occupational therapist and a meditation experience changed my view on why we cannot skip the fundamental step: observation.

In design, the word “Empathy” has been overused and misused. In theory, Empathy is like the nirvana of designers that helps them truly understand the user. Wishing for empathy doesn’t create it or even just doing some exercises. I found this the hard way. I even recreated scenarios by acting it up with a few people on the team or outside of the organization—that only took us to the surface ofEmpathy. We were not empathizing, we were imaging things and processes according to our desires, not the user. How do we arrive at Empathy then? Nothing has to be reinvented. It’s simple but it will require a lot of effort. Empathy starts with observation.

The and IDEO encourage people to go out in the field and observe the user in the real environment first before coming back to do brainstorming. I recently learned from an occupational therapist the value of seeing clients who we are designing for in the environment they will use the product or service. The occupational therapist meets her clients in their homes instead of a beautiful air-conditioned office. Though visiting her clients at their homes was heartbreaking and at times scary, it brought a new level of understanding where she was able to feel, touch, smell and even see how people moved around in their own house.

Observation is powerful! At a recent meditation retreat where I meditated for over 100+ and only observed my breathing, I discovered observation doesn’t come easy. We are trained by the world to just do do do, not to pause and observe. That’s why it’s easy to skip observation and jump straight to brainstorming. On top of it, two enemies feed our excuses for skipping this: money and time. If money and time are constraints, then we as designers and creatives are not doing a great job of advocating for it to our stakeholders.

Maybe it’s time that designers and creatives take an oath to live by when they practice just like doctors. Observation would be at the top of the ethical pledges. It’s fundamental, not an option to reach Empathy.

Artist date: Interview with an occupational therapist & Vipassana Meditation (10-day course)