Can designers reach the highest levels of empathy?
Have you ever verbally told someone about an experience? You used the best words you knew of to describe it — and they shook their heads with understanding and said, “Oh yeah, I see what you mean, I get it!”
Then they go and have the experience, and they come back to you. “Oh my gosh. I mean, I heard what you said, but it’s just …” and you nod your head, because now they actually get it.
Whether it’s grief, having a child, feeling the sun on your face —words are very powerful, but there is still a chasm we cross when we actually experience something ourselves.
Does design research help us cross that chasm?
After doing research, there’s nobody out there explicitly saying, “Oh yes, I totally understand the user!” But, I think deep in our hearts, we can start to think that design research holds every single answer. After all, the goal of design research is to get us to that point where we ‘get it’ — also known as empathy — defined as:
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
But as I have repeatedly observed and lived out the exchange I described above, I think it’s a little arrogant to say we achieve the same amount of empathy from someone describing the sun relative to actually feeling the sun. Even the holy grail of ethnographic research, observing someone in their actual workspace completing a task, doesn’t quite get us there.
Ok, so what?
Well obviously we need to keep doing research and making great diagrams, I’m not saying to give up because we’ll never get there.
But what I am saying is to keep in mind a humility, that unless we have directly experienced what our user has, that we can’t quite get there.