Empathy: The Softer Side of Design Thinking

Empathy: The Softer Side of Design Thinking

The world is filled with the crisp hard edges of numbers, statistics and dashboards. And while we learn a lot from them, I believe that design thinking offers a different way of gathering information- a softer side- that allows us to engage with users in deeper, more nuanced ways. Empathy is central to this notion. I learned how to become an ethnographer- a qualitative researcher- when I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley. It seemed that there was a clear divide between the quantitative researchers and qualitative researchers and each saw their methodology as the best way to learn. Today’s emphasis on big data mirrors this same divide. While the best view is to see quantitative and qualitative data as being complementary, ethnography is an incredibly powerful tool for uncovering unarticulated customer needs. I wanted to share some insights I’ve learned about what constitutes a good ethnographic interview because I truly believe that gathering good qualitative data is the most essential part of gaining user insights and empathy.

1. You can’t “phone in” an ethnographic interview. 

As an interviewer, you’ve got to be present in order to notice body language, tone of voice, a raised eyebrow, or the light in someone’s eyes. I recently read an article that described good job interviewing tips and it stated the importance of seeming interested. But that’s not really good enough for ethnography- you can’t seem interested. You have to be insanely curious and be passionately invested in hearing about someone else’s experiences.

2. You have to lose yourself.

When we host design thinking workshops, one of our first activities we is to model an ethnographic interview. Without fail, I get so completely absorbed in what the person I am interviewing is saying that the audience fades away. I’ve come to believe that this is the only way to really do ethnographic user research well. There can’t really be anyone else in the “room” but you and the person you are interviewing.

3. You have to be willing to abandon any script and follow where your interviewee takes you. 

When I first starting doing ethnographic interviews, I knew the importance of following my interviewee but I didn’t really believe it. There was a back script running though my mind urging me to keep digging for something really good- a nugget of information that would be a game changer. But that voice was just stopping me from really empathizing with the person I was talking to. New ethnographers often have an endpoint in mind, and their questions veer toward getting there. Open-ended questions can be scary, but as you develop skills and confidence that end point becomes less important. Following the person you are interviewing is all that matters. Being a good ethnographic interviewer requires being a fearless follower.

4. You have to be willing to be a co-creator of the experience.

I am starting to believe that empathy is a transaction that transforms both the person who wants to walk in someone else’s shoes and the person who is walking in them. It may be less about being a good interviewer who knows how to ask questions and more about becoming so engrossed that the interviewing process becomes invisible. The best ethnographic interviewers become like conductors who fade into the background as the music takes center stage, or dancers who are so in sync that you cannot tell which partner is leading. Letting go of the need to lead opens up a plethora of possibilities for what you can learn.

5. You have to be willing to entertain the notion that you can learn something from one person that can change the lives of many. 

This is a fundamental premise of design thinking. OXO International was founded in 1989 by Sam Farber, a retired CEO of a cookware company. His wife had arthritis in her hands and found using many kitchen utensils difficult. Farber designed solutions for the needs of one person- his wife- but the squishy-handled kitchen tools he created ultimately were useful to everyone. This digging down into the needs of one user through ethnography is essential, since designing for everyone is designing for no one. As a design thinker you have to go small to go big. And a good ethnographic interview will get you there, oh so softly.

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