Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Empathy as Faux Ethics


adbusters image with text "me, myself, I"

“The term ‘empathy’ has provided a guiding thread for a whole range of fundamentally mistaken theories concerning man’s [sic] relationship to other human beings and to other beings in general.

—Martin Heidegger

Popular design discourse is full of articles, books, and conference presentations on the role of empathy in design. In both commercial and non-commercial settings, most designers argue the same thing: designers should attempt to build empathy for “users” so they can better design for them. But empathy as it’s generally practiced ultimately subverts its own goals. It tends to reinforce “otherness”, promote anthropocentrism, and ignore ecological considerations.

Everyday Empathy

I recently moved from Manhattan to Queens. My old neighborhood, NoLita (north of Little Italy…thanks, real estate agents), had fully gentrified, with storefronts quickly transforming into cold pressed juice bars ($10/cup) and men’s shaving supply stores ($25 “beard oil”). My new neighborhood, Astoria, has little of that; it remains a mostly working class neighborhood. A certain coffee shop is a glaring exception.

I decided to stop in despite the trappings of a snooty, overpriced establishment: the $6 pour-over single origin coffee, the basket of glass saucers on the counter labeled “cute glass things” ($10 each). While I was there a man walked in: probably in his 50s, dressed in old clothing, hunched upper back, dirty hands, mumbling to himself…all hints that he was not there to enjoy a fancy latte on his day off or work on his book manuscript. I won’t say he was homeless because I have no idea. But he certainly made the other customers uncomfortable.

The man asked if he could use the bathroom. The coffee shop employees ignored the question, instead offering him a free coffee in return for his prompt departure. The response was strange to me: it seemed like coffee would only exacerbate his problem. He asked again if he could use the bathroom and was ignored. So he simply walked into the bathroom and locked the door. The employees gave him about two minutes before they started knocking on the door. “Sir, we have your free coffee if you just come out and get it.” No answer.

At this point, I was wondering whether to say something to the confused baristas who were obviously more concerned about the potential loss of customers than about the man in the bathroom. It’s like they thought everyone would leave and never come back simply because someone without the resources for new clothing, $6 coffee, and “cute glass things” happened to experience a biological necessity in the vicinity of their coffee shop. As they openly debated on whether to call the police, the man came out, took his free coffee (good for him) and left. The employees immediately hung a sign reading “out of order” on the door and talked amongst themselves about “how random” that experience was. Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Default Empathy

This very situation is seen by food and retail businesses of all kinds as a “problem” to be solved. So let’s imagine you work on a design team hired by the coffee shop to design a new process for dealing with these situations. Where might we start?

When in doubt, empathize! “We’re really taking time to get to know our users.” “We’re designing what customers want.” “We’re solving problems and helping people.” It’s hard to refute that empathy is a “good thing”—what’s the alternative, designing with indifference or disdain? Actually, many things are designed with indifference or disdain, and in many cases the concept of empathy has been a handy way to point out this basic failure. The problem is that empathy has become a crutch or shortcut for designers who mistake “having empathy” with “doing good design.” Too often, designers use empathy as a means of assessing their own work: “As long as I’m empathizing, I’ll design good things.”

In reality, the uncritical acceptance of empathy—and human-centricity, the framework within which it often exists—blinds us as much as it opens our eyes. Why?

Empathy Reinforces Otherness

The word “empathy” comes from the German Einfühlung, meaning “in feeling,” and the Greek empatheia, meaning “a passion or state of emotion,” adopted from em, an offshoot of en, or “in,” and pathos, “feeling.” Pathos was originally used in art theory to indicate the idea that appreciation for a piece of art depends on the viewer projecting themselves into the piece.

The meaning of empathy has shifted in design discourse: designers project themselves into the other’s perspective not just to appreciate their views, but also to turn that understanding into design interventions. There is a productive mode to empathy that sets an ethical standard for designers to act on their knowledge—to discover and solve the other’s problems.

This model has several dangers. It sets up a framework in which empathy becomes a way to further separate the ones who design (professionally) from those who do not (I am deliberately avoiding labels such as “designers” and “users”). It assumes that “The Designer” possesses a unique ability to access to the psyche of “The Other.” It’s no wonder that design is so often viewed as a self-aggrandizing profession. The model also assumes that the insight acquired by empathizing gives The Designer sufficient understanding to define and resolve The Other’s problems—even the world’s problems.

Let’s return to our bespoke coffee shop experience. It is easy to see the project as designing a process for employees that ultimately affects customer experience. But how can we claim expertise? We can familiarize ourselves with the workings of a coffee shop, how employees manage inventory and customer density, how they source ingredients, how they find good baristas. We will empathize with customers, of course. But this process we are attempting to redesign obviously has implications far beyond the coffee shop itself.

Especially within a capitalist system that rewards individual advancement and comfort, people have a hard time recognizing their own individual needs, wants, and desires in comparison to the collective needs, wants, and desires of all people. And it’s no secret that people want, need, and desire terrible things—things that quite literally foreclose on livable futures.

Who are the coffee shop’s “users?” Customers, of course. As a business, they are primarily concerned with customer experience, and since he did not purchase anything, the bathroom-seeking man was not a customer. So does he count? Is his experience relevant? If so, how to we reconcile his needs with the ostensible business needs to keep their customers happy? Do people need/want/desire to be free of the burden of seeing those unable or unwilling to participate in capitalist progress? Why? What is the real problem?

Commercial Empathy is an Oxymoron

Despite limitations around empathy used to distance designers and the subjects of design (we should not forget design’s ability to subjugate), there are applicable use cases, especially around health care and social justice issues. Empathy in commercial design, however, is suspect. Empathy often takes form as a subtler way of othering in nonprofit and government contexts, but I am picking on commercial design here simply because the ability to care for something not immediately profitable is so foreign to most businesses.

The discussion around empathy can emerge in commercial design in a few ways. Of course, designers are criticized for using the empathy frame as a blatant attempt to manipulate people to get them to buy stuff. Based on my experience working with designers in large companies, however, I believe empathy is used mostly in good faith to “humanize” a project that has little to do with human needs. When a design team is handed a brief that basically says build this thing because it will make a lot of money, their first impulse is to back up and figure out why this thing needs to exist in the first place. Empathy is applied retroactively to fit a business-centric product into a human-centric frame. It becomes an ethical practice designers use to feel better about the potentiality of making superfluous things that no one actually needs. But no matter how one justifies it, empathy for commercial ends is simply marketing. Does anyone have a real need to be sold things? Sustainable designs will never be reached by empathy alone.

Back to our coffee shop. Here’s a standard solution: Keep the bathroom door locked and require people to ask for a key available only to paying customers. This solves a discrete problem for the coffee shop. After all, how can one business possibly take on an issue like inequality or homelessness? But it does more; it actively ignores the larger, systemic responsibilities the business has to the community. By empathizing with one group of people, we necessarily exclude another. Despite the best efforts of participatory design, human-centricity and applied empathy too often result in unjustified prioritization of one group over another. At what point will designers and businesses stop saying, “it’s not our problem; it’s outside our scope”?

Empathy Ignores Ecology

The crux of human-centered design is that human needs should be considered before business and technological needs. If a design does not meet a defined human need, then its business viability and technical feasibility don’t matter. This human-business-technology model ignores other components of design, such as sustainability, ethics, and egalitarianism. One might argue that these considerations can be wrapped up in the “human” part, but in practice, surface level understandings of empathy tend to dominate over broad definitions that might include more politically infused ideas.

This tendency has to do with emphasizing the individual over the collective, thus reinforcing deep-seated notions of anthropocentrism that run through the history of western epistemology. Empathy does not consider ecological sustainability because human-centricity, forecloses on ecological thought, as argued by actor-network theory, deep ecology, or if you want some really fun reading, anti-civilization and anarcho-primitivism. If humans are at the “center,” then things like environmental sustainability, social justice, care for ourselves, economic equality…most political aspects of design, cannot be adequately considered. Once we put human needs, insufficiently defined through the lens of empathy, at the center of design practice, we foreclose on ecological thinking necessary for understanding the systemic implications of designs.

What happens if the design team on the coffee shop project recognizes these limitations? Maybe they decide to understand the bathroom-seeking man’s perspective a bit better. Under the empathy banner, they might spend a “day in the life” of someone who lacks consistent access to a bathroom. But even if they try to “walk in his shoes” for a while to experience that feeling, but can they really understand his perspective by faking it for a day? Can a designer really hope to be “in the feeling” of homelessness?

If we can get beyond seeing this bathroom problem as one of individual experience—whether the individual is the employee or the bathroom-seeking man—we see how it exists across political, economic, and social structures. Any successful intervention would also be systemic—instead inventing a process that tells us what to do when the bathroom problem happens, it would prevent the situation from happening in the first place. This is the real function of design—not to make money or change behaviors (although these are sometimes byproducts), but to articulate and create ways of being.

Beyond Empathy

It’s not that empathy is a bad thing. Save for sociopaths, we all have it and use it every day. It is this ubiquity that makes empathy in design such an unexciting topic. Worse than its banality, empathy has quickly become a catch-all concept for good design and ethical action. Having empathy is not a key to design success, it just means you are not a sociopath. Real design skill is about realizing that empathy is a small part of a much larger system of influences, causes, and effects on the situation at hand.

If we can ever hope for sustainability, we need to stop tricking ourselves into thinking humans are the most important aspects of the ecological system. Anthropocentrism has been our perspective throughout industrialization, and it has left us with the multitude of ecological and social crises we deal with every day. The individual designer’s ethical stance should not be a sales pitch to clients; it should pervade their entire perspective and shape the decisions they make, with the understanding that all design decisions have political impacts. This takes an ecological approach, not an empathetic one.

Image: “adbusters_104_me-myself_s” by Adbusters (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr.

thomas wendtThomas Wendt is an independent design strategist, author, facilitator, activist, educator, and speaker based in New York City. He splits his time between client work and independent scholarship. His client work focuses on building sustainable human-centered design capabilities through workshops, training programs, and coaching, along with projects encompassing early stage design research, co-design, and service design. Thomas has worked with clients ranging from large companies to nonprofits and activist groups. His independent research interests revolve around the relationship between design and philosophy, which have manifested in numerous articles, essays, and conference presentations, along with two books: Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences and Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design (forthcoming—read more and sign up for updates here). Thomas will be speaking at the Interaction17 conference on topic of empathy and ethics and more broadly on a critique of human-centered design.


What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding, John Payne

Who We Talk about When We Talk about Users, Kris Cohen

Leaving the Bed of Procrustean Experience: On the Need for Ethnography, Michael Thomas

Goodbye Empathy, Hello Ownership: How Ethnography Really Functions in the Making of Entrepreneurs, Hiroshi Tamura et al



Thomas Wendt, Surrounding Signifiers