It's Time to Deepen Our Empathy

It's Time to Deepen Our Empathy

In design, empathy is about getting a new perspective. It’s about understanding our customers at multiple levels. These levels are often broken down like this:

  1. Physical Understanding - What does the customer see, feel, hear, smell and taste?
  2. Cognitive Understanding - How do our customers think and understand a product or experience?
  3. Emotional Understanding - What motivates and touches our customers?

Brown, Tim. Change by Design. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

Understanding our customers at these levels is critical. Now consider this:

The number of Americans with faith in a spiritual being—nearly nine in 10—has not changed much over the past two decades, according to historical polling. Seventy-eight percent said prayer was an important part of daily life, an increase of 2 points since 1987. Eighty-five percent said religion is "very important" or "fairly important" in their own lives—a number that hasn't changed much since 1992. Nearly half (48 percent) described themselves as both "religious and spiritual," while another 30 percent said they were "spiritual but not religious." Only 9 percent said they were neither religious nor spiritual.

Stone, Daniel. “One Nation Under God?Newsweek, 6 April 2009.

The design community avoids these facts. It’s taboo to talk about religion and politics. We don’t have good frameworks for understanding this reality in business and therefore I think the design community has taken a pass on the issue (if not become hostile).

I believe that to deepen our understanding of our customers we must also cultivate spiritual empathy.


Spiritual Understanding – How does one’s faith effect his or her understanding of our product or experience?

Having spiritual empathy for our customers could be the most challenging type of understanding yet. Most of us aren’t comfortable “going there” with our colleagues, let alone our customers.

Design is fundamentally about humans. Let’s not forget that, and let’s not forget that our job, as designers, it to understand the whole human.

I hope this is a conversation starter. We owe it to our customers. We owe it to our craft.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash