Develop Your Empathy and Create Better Products

We all know that empathy is a key ingredient in developing lovable products, so what can product managers do to cultivate it?

I had a relatively unusual upbringing, and because of my father’s profession, we moved around every couple of years when I was a child. I attended international schools in Yemen, Thailand and Finland, learning in classrooms with kids from all over the globe. While we all came from different backgrounds, we had one thing in common: open-mindedness. We had to be open-minded, as we wanted a sense of belonging. Learning the local language (or trying to anyway) and seeing different religions and values made you reflect on your own.

This open-mindedness has evolved into empathy as a product manager, which I believe is a key ingredient in developing lovable products. So what does empathy actually look like in product management and how do you and others around you become more empathetic?

Educate yourself on the different types of customers using your product (Image: Shutterstock)

Empathy and Product Management

Empathy in product management can best be described as the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your customer.  “Customer first” or “customer focused” are buzzwords that are thrown around a lot, but what does being customer first mean in practice? For me, it means stepping away from your own needs and experiences, and the assumption that every customer has the same needs. We are all different and our products should reflect that. You should get out of your “bubble” and educate yourself on the different types of customers that are using your product.

I worked in product management in financial services in London for a couple of years. Although the UK is one of the richest countries in the world, I learned that half of the UK’s 22 to 29-year-olds have no savings, and that the UK has an estimated 14.2 million people living in poverty. I also learned that 7.1 million English people are considered functionally illiterate.

As a product manager, it was my job to consider financially vulnerable customers and to ensure we provided them with the appropriate level of information and support to make the right financial choices. For instance, I would reflect on the following: Is this product easily understood if I were to apply for it for the first time? Are we catering to different types of learning by using video, images and text? Are the risks written in plain English and are they easily accessible?

Tools to Become More Empathetic

Fortunately, there are tools and frameworks available to help you and those around you to become more empathetic. Below are some that I’ve found to be the most effective.

1. Get Early Customer Input, Listen and Iterate

Customer testing is a great way to gain insight into what your customers really think of your product. I have always booked in regular customer testing (often once a month aligned to the sprint cycle) and invited my entire team to attend – and I mean business analysts, developers, testers, copywriters and designers. While it’s important for a product manager to be empathetic, getting the team who designs and develops the product to be more empathetic ultimately results in an even better product.

I remember when we carried out usability testing on a prototype from a new design lead. The design lead had created an aesthetically pleasing design but clearly hadn’t considered accessibility and usability. During customer testing comments like “What does this say? Let me put on my glasses”, were common or customers would try to pinch to zoom in. This was a big learning for the team and especially for the design lead. Both accessibility and usability were center of mind in future designs and ultimately the product that was developed.

2. Create and use Personas

Personas can be a powerful tool to remind you of the diversity of your customer base. Personas represent different types of customers and allow your team to think about their perspective. But they need to be visible to add value. In my experience, they too often get lost on someone’s Mac and no one talks about them again. Stick them up on a wall, refer back to them when preparing for customer testing. That way you ensure you’ve considered all your different types of customers and you get a balanced view when you overlay your customer testing results with your personas.

3. Users Versus Customers Versus Humans

The language we use can make such a difference. Sitting a corporate office away from “our users” can create an unconscious distance. I remember being in a high-profile meeting with business stakeholders who knew our credit card offering inside out and were convinced everyone knew what a balance transfer and a money transfer was. Showing videos of humans struggling with our marketing pages made them realise that their assumptions were misguided. Qualitative data can be a powerful tool to create empathy.

Qualitative data can be a powerful tool to create empathy (Image: Shutterstock)

They say travel is the best education. If you travel outside your office and speak to potential or existing customers, you may be surprised by what people have to say. Visit a physical store (if you have this luxury), sit and listen to calls, interact with customers through your live chat or simply scroll through the app store comments. And don’t be afraid to take rough sketches or the minimum amount you can do to get customer feedback and refine your thinking.

You will go on to build better products, and your customers will thank you for it.

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Empathizing with Engineers

One of the most critical value multipliers that a product manager can bring to the table is the ability to empathize with their engineers.  A product manager who deeply understands their engineers can unlock value in so many ways: Ensure that the highest-value functionality is built in the most effective way Unblock and accelerate engineers in their day-to-day work Provide ... Read More

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Stuck in the Middle With Product Managers

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers to the right, here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you

Stealers Wheel, 1973

Martin Eriksson made famous the diagram below, showing how product managers are at the cross-section of business, tech, and UX (by the way, I’m not implying any of these groups are clowns or jokers).

The first time I saw this diagram I thought: “That’s awesome, it shows product right at the heart of everything, the lynchpin of the whole organisation.” My chest puffed up, my arrogance increased (one of my many fundamental character flaws that I’m trying to work on) and I felt really excited for the days that lay ahead.

Like every story that starts with a nice rosy beginning, it didn’t work out that way. Most organisations have at least some level of dysfunction, and, try as I might to overcome this, it never seems to go away.

Over time, this diagram has become more like the map of the disputed territories in a war zone, with product management at the heart of the worst fighting.

Not quite so exciting or confidence building after all. We product managers are normally the people who get the heat when things go wrong. We’re consistently exposed to the competing and conflicting demands of the three areas of the Venn diagram.

I had thought that Product was supposed to be all about testing with users, coming up with amazing ideas, and having the freedom to execute them. But that just doesn’t cover the full reality that most of us are faced with.

The business wants more of everything: more products, better uptime, better performance, fewer bugs, and all with the same amount of resource. The sales and upsell teams are screaming at you to give them a cast-iron, guaranteed launch date. The tech team wants to focus on big technical projects. They want all products to be technically perfect before release and they point-blank refuse to even give an indication of an estimate of when something may be ready for launch. The UX team wants to spend weeks going back to fundamentals to understand the users more deeply and to test every single piece of the UI with users in real-life, face-to-face testing.

Did I mention that you also have an extremely tight budget and the ever-present threat that the business is going to pull the funding for the product in favour of something a client has told the sales team they want?

This is obviously a caricature of reality, but it can often feel like this when you’re at the heart of the battle.

Total Meltdown

It’s at this point that you become vulnerable to a complete meltdown. No one told you it would be so tough. The job did not come with a health warning (full disclosure, I moved from running my own business to being a head of product, making this journey even more jarring).

With each week that goes by you can sink further and further. You become no longer able to move in any direction as you simply don’t have the respect of the other teams.

I reached this point at one time in my career. Fortunately I realised that I had to do something radical. If my job felt like a war zone it wasn’t because of the environment. It wasn’t because the tech team was shortsighted, it wasn’t because the sales team was selfish, and it wasn’t because the UX team was too unrealistic.


Yep. When you keep having similar problems with lots of different people then the only ego-shattering conclusion you can make is that it’s your fault.

OK, so what do I do now? How do I deal with this new bombshell? Am I completely useless?

Side Note – if you are looking for easy solutions neatly packaged into simple tips, this article is not for you

I had a short moment of panic, but then I realised that, if it was my fault that things were so bad, then surely it was in my power to fix it. It should therefore become my sole purpose to bring peace to this war-torn disaster zone.

I realised that if I wanted to get to that idyllic meadow of idea generation and autonomy for teams of tech, product and UX working together, I first had to build trust from every area of the business. There’s no point moaning that “it’s not the way things should be done” when you haven’t yet built confidence from all three circles in the Venn diagram.

Empathy and Understanding

This is why my personal journey to – I hope – at least an approximation of competency, travelled through the terrifying lands and rocky terrain of empathy and understanding.

This journey must start with the mantra “assume positive intent”. This means that, no matter what, you always assume that every person you work with is doing their best (please read Brene Brown’s opinions on this in her book Dare to Lead, it can be life-changing). How can you remain angry at someone who is only doing what they do because it’s the best or the only way they know? It can be very humbling when you acknowledge that the person who’s the target of your anger is actually doing the very best they can.

With that mindset in place I had to go through the long and arduous journey of putting myself in the place of the person I was failing. This could involve asking them for more information about what’s happening in their world, spending a day in their life and effectively doing their job for a day, or simply just spending some time thinking through what motivates them.

Just performing these acts can be enough to significantly increase trust, because that person then knows you care. When it comes to it, caring for others, and showing that you care for them, will solve more problems than you can imagine.

What I’ve just described sounds easy, but it is extremely hard. The truth is, we all care more about a tiny spot our face than we do about a million deaths in some faraway country. We are evolved to be naturally and inherently selfish, and overcoming this takes a lot of work.

The Empathy Trap

Empathy is the process of understanding what someone else thinks and feels and adjusting the way you behave as a result.

You may think that this all sounds great, but if I assume positive intent does that then mean that I accept their poor behaviour and allow them to treat me poorly?

And, if I’m changing my behaviour after thinking about the other person, will I just be trampled on and spend my time dancing to someone else’s tune? Does it mean I always say yes as I want to help that person?

This is what I’ve termed the empathy trap  – essentially it is to assume and believe that empathy is weakness.

To answer the questions above, accepting poor behaviour or always saying yes is not empathy but self-interest. If you truly care for and understand the other person you will be willing to take the difficult step of explaining why something will not go their way or addressing any of their behaviour that falls below what you consider fair or reasonable.

True empathy also involves the real strength to put yourself in an awkward position if it is the best thing for that situation and it is what the other person needs to hear (but don’t go too far, of course).

The Road to Peace

If you have genuine empathy and understanding for all the people you work with and who are affected by your products, then you are on the right road. If you continue to show people that you care then they will work with you in a positive way.

A note of warning here. There are many many different factions involved in most of these internal company wars and the best you can realistically hope for is an uneasy ceasefire. That is, everyone still has their own agenda and they are just a couple of months of being ignored away from going right back into an all-out attack.

You can only maintain peace by continuing to embrace empathy with everyone involved in or affected by your project at every point along the journey.

The goal isn’t to make everyone happy. You will have to disappoint people. The goal should be that everyone agrees with the final decision made, even if it means their personal project won’t be done soon. Exercising real empathy should make that process much easier.

If you work hard on understanding your colleagues and avoid blaming the other person when things go awry and instead blame yourself, then you may be closer to harmony than you realise.

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The key to having impact as an engineer? Empathy

As product engineers, we like to build things, we like to solve problems, and we also want to have impact, right?

But in order to have maximum impact, you need to build things that solve the right problems. How do we do that? By cultivating a deep sense of empathy for our customers.

At our event Building Intercom in Dublin, I discussed how this empathetic approach can play out even on a small scale, using the example of a seemingly simple feature I was working on.

Introducing Snooze

It all began with a small feature in our Inbox, which looks like this:


Customers write in and this opens a conversation with a customer support agent. Over time, the number of Intercom customers increased exponentially, and with this came an increase in the number of incoming conversations. So there was a lot going on in the Inbox, and our customer support agents were constantly under pressure.

To get conversations out of the way, they just closed them when a customer didn’t respond. But this behavior was screwing things like reports on who was resolving the most customer issues.

At that time, a conversation could be in two states – it could either be open or it could be closed. And not having a third state was really blocking us on other major features that we were working on at the time. So we started designing a new state that would allow our customers to put conversations on hold, and we called that state Snooze.

Managing legacy systems

We all know that when you are dealing with a legacy system, there’s a bit of work involved under the hood to add a new feature, especially when it affects one of the core parts of our product, in this case conversations. We needed to:

  1. Update and extend our conversations database table and do this without disrupting existing behavior for our customers or making the life of our infrastructure engineers miserable.
  2. Keep the UI consistent. We all know how great it feels to have the same behavior on mobile as on web.
  3. Make sure that everything is backwards compatible, because we cannot just change our API for every new feature we’re adding.

So we navigated these challenges, and we quickly shipped Snooze so we could unblock our other work. I was proud and happy about the elegance of the solution. I couldn’t wait to see it in action. But of course, it turned out that people didn’t use Snooze the way we thought they would.

The black hole of Snooze

It turned out that the customer support agents that managed the inbox were constantly snoozing their conversations, and this resulted in a large backlog of snoozed conversations. And given the way we had built this feature, conversations never reopened if nobody replied.

From an engineer’s point of view, my work was done, right? I mean, I shipped what I was asked to build. It worked as it was supposed to. But in effect, all we had done was copy the previous state of closed. Our analysts termed this the “black hole of Snooze”.


In effect, we had actually created a new problem, and let me tell you, it’s really shit knowing that the thing you’re building doesn’t actually solve a problem. In this case, it felt even worse because it created a new problem. And for someone like me who likes to build things to have a positive impact, that felt like a real kick in the guts.

“We needed to go from just building things to actually solving the right problem”

I had to go into my cave and do some reflection time. And I realized one thing. I realized we had built this feature in isolation and with the wrong motivation. We were so busy and focused on wanting to unplug other Intercom features that we just completely forgot what problem we were looking at and why we were building it. We lacked context around the interaction between the people in the inbox and their customers when we added this new state. So we needed to go from just building things to actually solving the right problem in order to have the impact we needed.

Empathy engineering

Okay, that makes sense, but how do I as an engineer make sure that this time around I’m not just blindly building things again? Actually, Tom Kelley from the Californian design company IDEO has something to say about that: “Empathy means challenging your preconceived ideas and setting aside your sense of what you think is true in order to learn what is actually true.” That’s exactly what we were missing. Having empathy for the users of our product, in this case people managing the Inbox, is what we were missing.

How, then, do I go about challenging my preconceived notions? As a first step, I sat down with our Customer Success team and literally looked over their shoulder as I checked how they use Snooze to find out what works and what doesn’t work when they have a large backlog of snoozed conversations. Then, I gathered every bit of feedback there was from customers to really understand their pain point. And lastly, we as engineers got together with designers, analysts, researchers and PMs, and we did a post-mortem of our first solution and discussed solutions and ideas for the next iteration.

We decided that we always had to force a snoozed conversation to reopen, and we added a scheduled job that would check when a conversation needs to be reopened. This conversation would then be put on an SQS queue and workers would take this conversation from the queue and would change its state.


And it’s so obvious, right? A lot of you will say, “Yes, Serena. Like, of course!” We were so focused on unblocking future work that we didn’t take some time to really consider how Snooze should function. And of course, this time around, it worked.

You need empathy to have maximum impact

So let me get back to the question at the beginning of the talk. How do we have maximum impact as engineers? We need to build things with real people in mind in order to solve the right problem. And the key to this is empathy.

Why you’re solving a problem is more important than how. Neither versions of Snooze we were building were flawed from a technical level, but that’s actually not the point. In the end, we spent weeks building a technically great solution that was wrong for our users, instead of building a solution that was right for our users.

“When you build product, you always create new contexts and new ways for people to relate each other”

We could have saved a lot of time by just trying to understand better the interaction between people that manage the Inbox and their customers. When you build product, you always create new contexts and new ways for people to relate to each other, and we as product engineers need to be mindful of this. So my closing message is, don’t hit snooze on the empathy button.

The post The key to having impact as an engineer? Empathy appeared first on Inside Intercom.

Stakeholder Empathy

Product managers are fundamentally non-essential to the creation of a viable product – that is, we enable functions to collaborate and prioritize to provide 100x the impact they otherwise would, but many successful products out in the world don’t have product managers. In fact, most small startups run without a dedicated product manager, because they haven’t reached the scale at ... Read More

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PREACH – a framework for perfecting your customer support tone

Often in life, it’s not what you say but how you say it that makes all the difference. This is even more true in a customer support conversation, so getting your company’s tone just right is incredibly important.

Once you’ve figured out how you speak to your customers, the next challenge is getting your team aligned for a consistent experience.

At Intercom we strive to maintain a high caliber of customer support, and we do this with a peer review system, where every member of our Support team consistently reviews their teammates’ conversations. During a review, conversations are rated on two main aspects: quality and tone.

Measuring our support

In simple terms, quality covers the correctness and accuracy of the answers provided. While we hold a high bar here, and encourage our team to go beyond simply providing correct answers, it’s a simple metric to break down and can be rated objectively with relative ease.

Tone, on the other hand, presents certain challenges. As soon as you look at the approach your teammates take to provide those answers, objectivity is inevitably replaced by subjectivity.

“The biggest issue with our previous guidelines for tone was their inaccessibility”

We conducted a calibration recently where the entire team rated the same 30 conversations for quality and tone on a three point scale. The resulting pie chart may have strongly resembled the marque of a certain German luxury vehicle, but it certainly didn’t confirm that conversations were rated consistently across teammates.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Our guide for speaking with customers was five years old, and 15 points long – it was written to be comprehensive rather than memorable. Furthermore, it captured what the support team at the time already knew about how they spoke to customers. No one was referring to it, because they had already internalized its most essential principles.

Now, however, we’re a rapidly scaling team, and the challenge for any growing team, whether it’s Support or Sales, is finding a method you can rely on to teach every new teammate exactly how you talk to your customers.

How do we do it now?

We realized the biggest issue with our previous guidelines for tone was their inaccessibility. Even if the guide’s content was perfect, it was a little too long to recall every point and not something that could be easily referred to when speaking to customers, or reviewing a teammate’s conversation.

In coming up with a way to make these guidelines easily understood, remembered and shared, we considered alliterative phrases, mnemonics and even rhymes. We eventually settled on an acronym – PREACH. 🙌🏾

At Intercom, when speaking to customers we aim to be Proud, Responsible, Empathetic, Articulate, Concise and Human:

  • Proud – In our mission to make internet business personal, we often make bold decisions about which features to build. We own this mission and its impact unapologetically. For instance, we don’t say “Unfortunately we don’t have tickets”, we say “We don’t have tickets, because we believe that having conversations with your customers is a better approach.”
  • Responsible – If a bad feature or bug ships and a customer is disappointed or frustrated, it’s on us. We don’t blame the engineers, or attempt to come up with excuses. We take ownership of our mistakes, and move forward.
  • Empathetic – We acknowledge, and aim to truly understand how our customers feel and handle each conversation accordingly. We match their tone, and the situation wherever we can.
  • Articulate – Gracefully augmenting your conversations with personal language, emojis and GIFs are encouraged, but typos, bad punctuation or poor phrasing make us look less professional. This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s important to keep the fundamentals front and center in order to reinforce our high bar.
  • Concise – No matter how much fun you can have with your customers, never forget they contacted you for a reason. Our job is to fully understand their needs and resolve them as quickly as possible. Also keep the medium in mind here – with a Messenger window, your answers will usually be read in a compact space.
  • Human – With Custom Bots and other automations handling your customers’ simpler questions, you’re left with all the conversations where a human approach is the best one. Take this opportunity to really connect with your customers, and if you wouldn’t say the words in a “normal” spoken interaction, don’t say them in a support conversation.

Practice your tone

Crafting the PREACH framework is all well and good, but how do we apply it? In our customer support training sessions to introduce new teammates to the Intercom customer support organization as a whole, we include a lesson on PREACH.

Within these sessions, each new employee dives into conversations with our customers. The PREACH framework serves as the life vest while they learn how to swim – providing support while still allowing them the opportunity to learn on their own. We encourage people to embrace their own tone and approach within these guidelines when supporting customers.

“PREACH is a powerful enforcer of our culture and standards when supporting customers”

Lastly, PREACH not only acts as a guideline for our tone, but also as a powerful enforcer of our culture and standards when supporting customers. We’re proud of the product and we keep our conversations personal, whether it be with customers or teammates. This can have a lasting impact on new teammates as they get settled at Intercom. It shows what we value, and the standards that we hold.

At the end of the day, it boils down to practicing what we PREACH.

The post PREACH – a framework for perfecting your customer support tone appeared first on Inside Intercom.

How to Help Others Without Losing Yourself by Roisi Proven

Roisi Proven, product leader for startups in the media industry, brings us a personal case study about her journey towards leading with empathy without harming her own wellbeing. Please note, this talk deals with issues such as death, mental illness, and descriptions of mental breakdowns.

Empathy as a Superpower

Empathy is a powerful tool to have as a leader, and by being able to truly put yourself in the shoes of others, and feel the pain of their lived experiences, we are able to support them better and create a nurturing environment for growth.

However, this has its dangers. If we invest to much of ourselves in the experience of others, it can become difficult to detach, and stress and anxiety will build. An unexpected loss can become the catalyst for a downward spiral, and the empathy that helped you in your leadership journey can become a harmful, destructive influence.

Empathy as a Sidekick

We don’t need to have an excess of empathy in order to use it productively. You should never ask a team member to “leave their feelings at the door” on the way in to a meeting, but instead practise leaving their feelings on the way out, so that you can truly be in the moment with them while also protecting your own mental health.

Life is challenging, and building a diverse team means finding ways to allow people to bring their whole self to work, good and bad. By fostering a supportive environment such as this, we give people from hugely varied backgrounds the ability to contribute to our products and our organisation, and our output will hugely improve as a result.

The post How to Help Others Without Losing Yourself by Roisi Proven appeared first on Mind the Product.

What Blocks our Empathy in the Design Thinking Process?

Empathy is the foundation of the whole Design Thinking process. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes enhances our ability to receive and process information, which helps us understand how other people experience the world.

As a product designer, I know that empathy helps me to recognise the difficulties that people face, alongside their needs and desires, and that I can then use that knowledge to design the best solution for their challenges.

Being a product designer is exciting. I get to solve important problems and make people’s lives easier but, unfortunately, sometimes I get distracted – and so do most of us.

How many times do we find ourselves distracted in a project, and losing perspective on why and who we’re designing for? We all know that even the most successful projects have their high and low moments. How can we improve focus and create space for designers to challenge themselves and come up with their best work?

Why do we get Distracted?

I felt uncomfortable with my lack of empathy in some situations and decided to look into what’s blocking me and how I could solve it. Here are some common reasons I uncovered:

1.Solving a Different Problem

Are we solving the right problem? As a project progresses, it is not unusual for team or client problems to emerge: projects lack focus, expectations become difficult to manage, tasks duplicate… And it all creates inefficiency and frustration in the team, making the purpose of the work not as central as it should be.

2. The Test of Time

The longest project I’ve worked on lasted 12 months. That experience made me realise it’s not easy to make lengthy projects continuously interesting. Designer teams might get lost in the middle of endless files, tweaks and twists. That’s when they lose empathy and stop pushing the thinking.

3. Complex Problems

Designers are being asked to design for increasingly diverse users, cultures, and environments. These design challenges can be so wickedly complex that is difficult to develop or maintain empathy for the problem.

What can we do to Maintain Empathy?

There is no easy (or perhaps even “right”) solution for this problem, but I can share some of my conclusions and practical methods to help you through the tricky moments.

1. Engage With Your Team

When you’re… solving a different problem

In my experience, to build great products, we need to nurture a healthy and positive culture within the team. If you are not solving the right problem, and that’s getting you frustrated, stop and ask for help from your team. If we don’t empathise with our colleagues, how can we empathise with people we’re designing for?

Activity: Swap roles – Get someone from your team to swap roles or tasks with you.  The goal here is to understand and even gain compassion for each other, which can lead to useful behavioral changes.

2. Keep the Momentum Going

When you’re… facing the test of time

Empathy serves to inspire decisions in the early stages of a design process: it helps designers to develop the reasoning and feelings behind human behaviours. We gain insights into people’s needs, wants, feelings and thoughts, and why they demonstrate such behaviors.

Activity: Empathy is not a stage: you should extend the empathy activities whenever needed during the process. Product teams that consistently keep customer needs in mind are able to maintain and evolve their products. For me, design process should be summarised as: Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test – and Empathise above all these stages.

3. Try it Yourself

When you’re… solving truly complex problems

If a problem is too complex, try gaining personal insights into others’ experiences. Resonating with the user may be easiest when you’ve got a personal example at hand. For example, I worked on a project to improve customer experience during a fraud journey. There was an immediate connection between me and our target customer, as I had also gone through the experience of being defrauded. I could remember how it felt when I experienced the same problem and how painful it was. Designers empathise more when they hear or see customers in action. So, why not invite a customer to sit and work with the team?

Activity: Extra chair – Invite customers to sit with the team and participate not only in the definition stage of the project. For example, invite them to participate in a ideation session with the team.

What About Your Empathic Thinking?

As humans we’ve evolved to have a powerful sense of empathy, but we get preoccupied with other things all too often. If we find ways to guarantee that empathy is always present, we will think deeper, care more, and create better products and services for humans everywhere.

Time and money are barriers to applying these activities but, as designers, we have the power to explore and educate others in new ways of thinking. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them – these are Albert Einstein’s words, not mine.

We can all agree Design Thinking without empathy doesn’t work. It’s a mindset that all designers should have and try to maintain and cultivate.

Have you faced similar problems in your work? I’d love to hear from you. If you’re working through a similar situation at the moment, feel free to try and include my suggested experiments to your design process and let me know how it goes. Let’s start a conversation.


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Empathy technologies like VR, AR, and social media can transform education

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes the case for reading as a “technology for perspective-taking” that has the capacity to not only evoke people’s empathy but also expand it. “The power of literacy,” as he argues  “get[s] people in the habit of straying from their parochial vantage points” while “creating a hothouse for new ideas about moral values and the social order.”

The first major empathy technology was Guttenberg’s printing press, invented in 1440. With the mass production of books came widespread literacy and the ability to inhabit the minds of others. While this may sound trite, it was actually a seismic innovation for people in the pre-industrial age who didn’t see, hear or interact with those outside of their village. More recently, other technologies like television and virtual reality made further advances, engaging more of the senses to deepen the simulated human experience.

We are now on the cusp of another breakthrough in empathy technologies that have their roots in education. Empathy technologies expand our access to diverse literature, allow us to more deeply understand each other and create opportunities for meaningful collaboration across racial, cultural, geographic and class backgrounds. The new empathy technologies don’t leave diversity of thought to chance rather they intentionally build for it.

Demand for these tools originates from educators both in schools and corporate environments who have a mandate around successful collaboration. Teachers who are on the front lines of this growing diversity consider it their job to help students and employees become better perspective-takers.

Our need to expand our circles of empathy has never been more urgent. We as a nation are becoming more diverse, segregated and isolated by the day.

The high school graduating class of 2020 will be majority minority and growing income inequality has created a vast income and opportunity gap. Our neighborhoods have regressed back to higher levels of socio-economic segregation; families from different sides of the track are living in increasing isolation from one another.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dean Hochman

These new empathy technologies are very different than social media platforms which once held so much promise to connect us all in an online utopia. The reality is that social media has moved us in the opposite direction. Instead, our platforms have us caught in an echo chamber of our own social filters, rarely exposed to new perspectives.

And it’s not just social media, clickbait tabloid journalism has encouraged mocking and judgment rather than the empathy-building journey of a great piece of writing like Toni Morrison or Donna Tartt. In the rich depth of literature, we empathize with the protagonist, and when their flaws are inevitably revealed, we are humbled and see ourselves in their complex, imperfect lives. Research has since proven that those who read more literary fiction are better at detecting and understanding others’ emotions.

What follows are several examples of empathy technologies in bricks and mortar schools, and online and corporate learning.

Empathy technologies enhance human connection rather than replacing it. Outschool is a marketplace for live online classes which connects K-12 students and teachers in small-groups over video-chat to explore shared interests. Historically online learning has offered great choice and access but at the cost of student engagement and human connection.

Outschool’s use of live video-chat and the small-group format removes the need for that trade-off. Kids and teachers see and hear each other, interacting in real-time like in a school classroom, but with participants from all over the world and from different backgrounds.

Live video chat on Outschool

The intentionally of curating a diverse library of content is a key difference between the new empathy technologies and social media. Newsela is a news platform delivering a bonanza of curated, leveled content to the classroom every day. It’s the antidote to the stale, single source textbook, refreshed once a decade. In the screenshot below, children are exposed to stories about Mexico, gun rights and Black women. Teachers often use Newsela articles as a jumping off point for a rich classroom discussion where respectful discourse skills are taught and practiced.

Newsela’s interface.

Business leaders are increasingly touting empathy as a critical leadership trait and using these technologies in their own corporate education programs for leadership and everyday employees. Google’s Sundar Pichai describes his management style as “the ability to trancend the work and work well with others.” Microsoft’s Satya Nadella believes that empathy is a key source of business innovation and is a prerequisite for one’s ability to “grasp customers’ un-met, unarticulated needs.” Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Apple’s Tim Cook round out a cohort of leaders who are listeners first and contrast sharply to the stereotypical brash Silicon Valley CEO.

To deepen employees empathy, cutting edge corporations like Amazon are using virtual environments like Mursion to practice challenging interpersonal interactions. Mursion’s virtual simulations are powered by trained human actors who engage in real-time conversations with employees. I tried it out by role-playing a manager discussing mandatory overtime with a line worker who was struggling to keep two part-time jobs. The line worker described to me how last-minute overtime requests threw his schedule into chaos, put his second job at risk and impacted his childcare situation.