Empathy is about understanding the other, not just feeling sympathy for him. Have you had a friend in distress? What do you do? If you feel sorry for him you are being sympathetic, but instead if you are able to understand the situation he is going through by stepping into his own shoes, then you are being empathic. Empathy is the capability to feel “as other”. The question we must ask ourselves is why is this important. When designing, one thing is our style and other is for whom we are designing. Our style as a designer are those specific traits that affect my aesthetic perception. In the other hand, for whom we are designing is the user of whatever we design. Hence every time each one of us designs, we must step into the shoes of our user. As a matter of fact, I always tell my students to try to design to someone very different than yourself. Designing for your own self is easy, you know exactly what you like and what you dislike. Being able to capture what other person thinks, that is the true essence of design. Kouprie and Visser (2009) talk about a four stage process into empathic design, discovery, connection, immersion and detachment. For me the more important phase is detachment. The reason for this is that only by fulfilling such phase, the designer is able to interiorize the experience and reflect over it. With this, the designer will be able to have insights on the user which if used correctly will assure him a good result.
Design also is about co-working. In co-working, the designer is not an isolated entity trying to design something to someone else, but he rather becomes a medium by which different ideas from different points of view are materialized. IDEO is a great place to understand such practice. I would highly recommend you to take a look into the Human Center Design toolkit from IDEO in the web http://www.designkit.org/resources/1 . Such practice will definitely help the designer into stepping into someone else’s shoes.
If you have reached this point of my publication is that somehow I have gotten your attention, so let’s get into it a little bit further. Would you be able to step into my shoes if I share a little bit of me?
Let’s try a small exercise: The other day I was asked to talk about my most precious object. Such request for me was very difficult since being an industrial designer, objects for me have very important meaning. I think of objects as reflections of a person’s experiences, not by this meaning that I´m a materialistic person, just that objects can be filled up with emotions. I consider myself a collector. The most important collecting attribute for me is history. I love to try to understand what has happened to a given object through time. The object I selected for this exercise was my 1974 VW Type 181 “The Thing”. This is a gracious car…. loved by some and hated by others. I bought this car in a difficult time of my life, in a precarious shape and with dedication, time and effort I took it to a level that makes me proud. It’s not the nicest nor the coolest car of all times, but my family loves it. My children feel like in a roller coaster when riding it and my wife feels it is part of our family.
The question now would be: What will you design for me?
Designing is stepping onto someone else’s shoes. I was looking the other day at the website http://designingwithpeople.rca.ac.uk/ and by chance took a glimpse into the life of “Peter”. Just like me, he was a teacher for over 31 years (I’m still a teacher and hasn’t been 31 years…. yet). I can see from his description that he is very proud of himself. A very confident person but never the less going through mobility difficulties throughout his adulthood. My most important insight in Peter’s life is that he hates objects to be condescending with his situation. He would love to have objects that instead of reminding and evidencing his situation to other people, would treat him with the aesthetic attributes as any other object. He doesn’t feel different, nevertheless because of his mobility conditions his objects are different. How would you design to Peter?
See you next time, and I expect you have been able to step a little into my shoes.