From day one of the design thinking module the word empathy has been repeated to us over and over again.
As Tim Brown from Ideo says in his article, “empathy is at the heart of design”. If we don’t understand peoples’ feelings and experience, the design becomes difficult and pointless.
The oxford dictionary describes empathy as:
“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
The concept and understanding of empathy has been familiar to me from my job, but I don’t think I truly understood what it meant to deeply feel empathy in your work until design thinking came along. And even tough I consider myself to be quite an emotional and empathetic person, using it as a “tool” in my workplace is a different story.
Theatre work and performance uses empathy to connect to the audience. From the initial script, direction, dramaturgy, through the production process into the final performance, the whole team is trying to create an emotion in the people sitting in the auditorium. That emotion, empathy, creates a connection between them and the actors and all of a sudden, they become part of the story.
When that moment happens, you can feel it. As an audience member, you feel immersed in the story to a point where you, even if for just a second, forget about the real world and fully embrace the alternate reality you become part of. As a member of the production team who is hiding backstage, you can almost visualise the connection. You feel the energy coming from the auditorium and you have that warm feeling that your job makes sense and is worthwhile.
I suppose the concept of empathy in design thinking is reversed and that’s why I am experiencing it a little differently.
In theatre, we create work – a show – to create empathy within the audience towards the characters and the story.
In design thinking, you immerse yourself in someone else’s feelings, you empathise and create work based on those feelings.
When we did our first exercise targeting empathy I was slightly skeptical. Janja asked us to redesign a shoe. We were meant to go out and speak to people (..Oh dear God..) about their shoes. The point of the exercise wasn’t to survey, in fact it was the exact opposite. We were meant to find out stories and connections they had to their shoes. Something personal, something that would spark up that creativity within us and give us an idea and a path for our redesigning process.
This exercise, although really helpful in other ways, wasn’t exactly made for me to immerse myself in experiencing and finding that connection, or empathy. It was overshadowed by my anxiety about talking to strangers (analysis and what’s my progress on that coming soon). But, we did it. We talked, we got some info, we made a thing.
The next class, however, hit the nail on the head!
We played a game where, in a group of three, one was a robot, one was blind and one was mute. Our task was to go to the toilet and back into the classroom. THIS ladies and gentleman, opened my eyes – well, not literally because I was the “blind” in this game, but you get it.
I was noticing different things, sounds and sensations and experiencing a lot of uncertainty in my step, in my actions, in the task itself. Such a basic task. Actions I do every day, numerous times! And I struggled. A simple thing like washing my hands was not a simple task anymore.
I realised and felt that emotion when I was trying to find the hand dryer. Not that familiar with the bathroom and being blindfolded, I simply couldn’t find it. I found the basin, I found the soap – after reaching a few times. But the dryer was in the corner of the room, I barely had sense of what the room looked like and if I was really blind and never saw the bathroom before, I wouldn’t have known anything. I didn’t find the dryer myself, someone pointed it to me and walked me to it. But if I had to find it myself, I’d probably give up.
It made me feel hopeless and I wanted to give up.
After the exercise, I thought about how people with disabilities have to feel like hopelessness every day, but they’re not giving up. And how unfair it is that we make things and create processes that don’t accommodate to everyone.
That feeling made me think about solutions to, about changing the processes, about creating things that could help that barrier between able and unable.
And all of a sudden, it clicked. That experience, that emotion, that connection, made me create something – ideas.
Now I understand why empathy is important. It gives you that inspiration.
But it also makes you generate ideas that might, in some way or another, add value to whatever we are doing. Creating or making for the sake of creating or making doesn’t really add up. But ideas that solve a problem, that make things better, that add value, that makes complete sense.