Technology moves fast, yet human needs change slowly and cannot be detected immediately. There are always gaps in between what we are capable of and how the problems can be ideally solved. The problems, or actual human needs, are so complex and rather multidimensional, that we can’t confront them merely with quantitative approaches. We often need a more human-centered, qualitative approach to address the increasingly complex systems. Miraculously, design empathy fills up this gap.

Empathy on the Edge

Reading through “Empathy On the Edge –  Scaling and Sustaining a Human-centered Approach in the Evolving Practice of Design” by Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard of IDEO, a global design company committed to creating positive impact, we gain a sense of how empathy benefits design thinking and how critical it is to business success. Astonishing as it may be, the article states that, “By responding to real, but unexpressed and unmet needs, design empathy promised to bring financial rewards.” According to IDEO, empathic design was presented as a process involving observation, data collection and analysis, and iterative prototyping. It not only touches the project or product launch, but expands to the whole ecosystem of people and business involved. Research shows that when we are empathetic, we enhance our ability to receive and process information. This is beneficial to the long term development of product and service design as well as corporate culture.

One might think, “Empathy seems to be an innate human attribute. Do we still need to ‘learn’ to be empathetic?” The answer is YES. We might feel sad when seeing heartbreaking news, or have the impulse to rescue an injured kitten, but not many of us apply the approach in a work context. Empathy can be a strong but abstract emotion that requires deliberate practices to become more concise, meaningful, and less interfering. Furthermore, it needs to be well moderated, or else the depth of thinking may suffer from insufficient empathy, while losing focus with excessive empathy.

How to Put Design Empathy into Practices

To put design empathy into practice, the most basic prerequisite is to be self aware. This not only refers to clearly mapping the subjects, including our “self,” in mind, and opening up our perceptual senses to the environment and subjects, but also to temporarily letting go of our role or status or setting aside our own expertise or opinion. This helps us create a sense of purpose, and at the same time, resonance with our target audience more easily. Here, be prepared and open to whatever might come next!

After building clear self awareness, we can start seeking those “living on the edge.” It can be hard to practice design empathy on a random individual, since the attributes you find on him or her might not vary too much from our current status, thus more difficult to identify. As the article puts it, “In order to innovate, we need to understand the intriguing, exciting, and lesser-known fringes of society, where the future is already at play. Why? Because the extremes prompt us to discover new meanings and interpretations for old things (Pantzar, 1997).” Here in human society, your target audience could be social minorities or members of certain subcultures.

There are multiple ways to take actions to relate to our target audience. We can observe, or take an extra mile in immersing ourselves into either the actual or simulated scenario. For example, IDEO had their teams do things like: sleep on rubber sheets overnight at an elder-care facility to relate to spending one’s last months or years there; participate in grueling endurance events to share athletes’ exhilaration and pain; or get their chests waxed to empathize with wound-care patients. These immersive experiences allow us to move beyond our expertise to see challenges with fresh eyes. In fact, many companies have started to implement analogous experiences methods to foster empathy. For example, a company asked their designers to self-administer a fake injection as part of a month-long exercise, building empathy for patients of a weekly treatment. Analogous experiences are capable of expanding the scale of participants and latitude of the design process, without sacrificing any of the emotional impact more traditional observations might evoke.

Coming so far, one might again worry, “Can we achieve design empathy on a personal level? Since the examples listed above were all organizations with collaboration and resources!” The answer is again YES. And you may be surprised by how far design empathy has taken Arunachalam Muruganantham, a non-business background entrepreneur.

Arunachalam Muruganantham: The first man to wear a sanitary napkin

Arunachalam Muruganantham is a social entrepreneur from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India. Growing up in poverty, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 and took up various laborious jobs to support his family. Muruganantham’s entrepreneur journey all started from 1998, when one day, he saw his newly married wife embarrassingly carrying something behind her back. He soon figured out it was a very nasty rag. She’d been using this unhygienic method to manage her period. Muruganantham asked, “Why not use sanitary napkins?” His wife replied immediately, in a matter of course, “If myself and other women from our family start using napkins, we have to cut our family milk budget.” After going through empathetic observations toward Indian females living on the edge, Muruganantham suddenly knew what to do. He wanted to invent low-cost modern sanitary napkins, giving millions of women in his home country and around the world access to hygiene.

He took action immediately in making low cost sanitary napkins. However, the most difficult part came along: Where could he find women volunteers? He asked his wife first, but soon found out it was impossible to develop a napkin when you had to wait for a month to get feedback. “It would take two decades to make a napkin!” He mocked. He soon targeted medical college girls, but at that time, even these future doctors were not ready to discuss menstruation. The marketing research thus turned out to be unsatisfactory as well. This was when the history of a man wearing sanitary napkins happened – a vivid example of building self awareness and executing analogous experience.

Fortunately, heaven helps those who help themselves. After years of trying, Muruganantham not only successfully invented low-cost sanitary napkins, but further created a system of simple machines to support self-sufficient production in developing nations. Empathy took place throughout his journey – from problem recognition, to product development, and to profit distribution. “From my childhood, I know, no human died of poverty. Everything happens because of ignorance.” said Muruganantham at his INK talk (Arunachalam Muruganantham: The first man to wear a sanitary napkin) in Jaipur. “I never studied in business school. I just observe what people are doing…… And I’m going to make India a 100% napkin-using country. I’m going to provide 1 million employment opportunities through this. That is my vision.”

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