Greg·Wolanski —designer

Empathy in design, practically

More than a year ago, I realized that “empathy” is one of those words that everyone seems to define in their own way – like “love.” That was my opinion about empathy. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t know much about it at the time. I felt bad about it. So I decided to do something about it.

Help arrived from Janko Jovanovic, who recommended to me the book “Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work” by Indi Young, published by Rosenfeld Media.

Last year I thought that discussions about empathy were a fad that would soon be over. But it’s been over a year now, and the internet continues to attack me with a wealth of content about empathy. It lacks a common language, a common starting point. I think the book by Indi Young is a good starting point for anyone who wants to discuss empathy.


My favorite quotes from the book

The highlighted sections are my own additions.


Going deeper than assumptions and opinions is what’s called empathy.

The goal of developing empathy with a person is to be able to “walk in his shoes.” If you keep referring to his reasoning in third person, you never step into his shoes. For example, “He yelled at the coach because he was not paying attention when it happened” is about another person yelling, not about you yelling. It’s easier to feel judgmental or misinterpret a perspective. If you use first person in the present tense, suddenly you’re there in his shoes. “I yell at the coach because he was not paying attention when it happened.” There is a magical difference.

The empathetic mindset helps you learn how to specialize and how to form a network. Aim to build for the long term, with the idea that you fill a niche in a complex ecosystem of services.

Sometimes you find a pattern that ends up being just one person’s voice, restating the same thing over and over. It isn’t a pattern, because it’s only one person. No one else said anything similar. You have a choice. You can ignore these statements entirely, or if they seem to be of importance to your organization, you can find new people and conduct additional listening sessions to see if the topic comes up again.

As a final test of an idea before investing any resources in it, create a parallel version of the story where your idea does not exist, but the characters still achieve their intent. This parallel version is a great way to clarify your story and single out which thinking and reactions you are trying to support in particular.

Adding to the ways an organization can get snared by its own habits are methodologies. It’s easy to get caught up in the day–to–day steps of a technique and cease to think about how applicable the results are, or how you might use a different approach for a new scenario. If you are good at using a hammer, then lots of things look like nails.

While every culture seems to have a saying about how hurrying makes for poor–quality craftsmanship, these maxims are often ignored by most business processes. You can’t slow down the processes at your organization, but you can introduce a slow–rhythm process. Continuously collecting stories, developing empathy with the people your organization supports, dipping into this process every couple of months – this is the unhurried approach that yields fine workmanship. Add this routine of collecting knowledge at a slow frequency in parallel with all the other work going on at your organization.


How was it?

Sound practical?

I recommend reading the entire book. If you liked the above quotes, the whole book will make you smile.


PS: Did you know that the Center for Nonviolent Communication website has a feelings inventory? I didn’t know either.


PPS: Did you know that you can get an email every time I publish something?


June 2017