Advancing the Value of Ethnography

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


Doctor Love by Banksy (image by Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the early 1970s, Nick Lowe wrote a song from the perspective of an old hippie character. This character laments change as he witnesses the cultural pendulum swing from the peace and love 60s into the hard-edged 70s. It’s not clear whether Lowe—or Elvis Costello, who later recorded the song—intended a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the character or a straight-forward critique of the times. But in the years since, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” has become a sort of call to action—an anthem to lost empathy.

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

When I read the increasingly frequent criticisms of empathy, that same cultural pendulum comes to mind. Yale Professor Paul Bloom, the architect of much of the recent anti-empathy opinion, has written critically of empathy for several years. His thesis: Empathy is a “parochial, narrow-minded” emotion that misleads us into making bad decisions. In a video promoting his upcoming book, he says, “Empathy is fundamentally, from a moral standpoint, a bad thing.” He claims, “It makes the world worse.” His solution is to employ a “cold-blooded” rational compassion that takes emotion out of the equation.

Now, I’m probably a bit biased since I’ve spent the better part of my career looking for ways to bring more empathy into the design of technology products, but I believe that the design community and our audiences have benefited from the overwhelming shift in perspective from the “lone genius” model of design, to a human-centered one. We designers and technologists are now all much more attuned to the needs and problems our audiences face. Empathy was at the center of this transformation.

That said, it may be useful to reflect on some of the critical points Bloom raises. Two in particular stand out: that emotional empathy leads to questionable actions and that empathy blinds us to long term consequences. We need to think critically about our methods if only to ensure that we don’t make the problematic choices Bloom describes as the technological (and social) object of design changes and evolves.

Empathy in Design

As design and its value in problem-solving have become widely recognized aspects of business and innovation processes, methods for problem-solving with empathy have proliferated. Empathy is now considered a necessary precursor to responsible design process. We’ve come a long way in our ability to represent users and their needs in the design process, as Jon Kolko outlined in the Harvard Business Review:

“To build empathy with users, a design-centric organization empowers employees to observe behavior and draw conclusions about what people want and need. Those conclusions are tremendously hard to express in quantitative language. Instead, organizations that get design use emotional language (words that concern desires, aspirations, engagement, and experience) to describe products and users. Team members discuss the emotional resonance of a value proposition as much as they discuss utility and product requirements.”
—Jon Kolko, Design Thinking Comes of Age

As designers, the key reasons we conduct research about the individuals who will use our products and services is to infer how they might act in certain situations, or how they might construct meaning from something we are designing. We interview and observe and create representations of a user’s experience. We imagine how they might feel as they progress through it. Our user journeys, personas, experience prototypes, and other roadmaps rationalize motivations and likely choices and help us select the right options for engagement and action. In a nutshell, we empathize to rationalize.

Does Empathy Rely too Heavily on Emotion?

Remember Bloom’s assertion that “rational compassion” should sit at the center of our actions? It would seem that we designers have already adopted his recommendation by focusing our attention on rationalizing the actions of our users. Taking an overly rational approach, however, leads us to assume that our users will act in rational and idealized ways as well. In many situations, this simply isn’t true, particularly if the user is experiencing stress, under pressure, or going through an emotionally charged experience. Occasionally, rational behavior is the least likely outcome, and keeping the emotional side of empathy in play can help us better anticipate these situations.

Steve New and Lucy Kimbell have discussed two kinds of empathy and how they relate to our work as designers:

“Cognitive empathy relates to an individual’s ability to work out what is going on in the other’s mind; affective empathy refers to a shared emotional response – for example, feeling fear or excitement… The idea of affective empathy is more than just using one’s imagination to get a fuller picture of the other’s experience. Affective empathy requires a kind of emotional labour: the understanding is not just descriptive, but embodied.”
—Steve New and Lucy Kimbell, Chimps, Designers, Consultants and Empathy: A “Theory of Mind” for Service Design

We’ve found that affective empathy—personal, emotional resonance with the people we are designing for—is critical for a well-rounded understanding. Rather than keeping ourselves at an emotionally safe distance, we identify ways to immerse ourselves and our clients in the activity at issue (or an analogous one) and mindfully acknowledge our emotions as the experience unfolds. This direct engagement enables us better identify the cues that signal confusion, stress, or pressure, which we then discuss and reflect on together as a group. This immersion can never be a replacement for observational research, just as we can never be the user, but we find that it is a vital compliment to what we learn through more traditional methods. It helps to kickstart the emotional labor to which New and Kimbell refer and it provides a new lens to use in interpreting what we observe.

Back in 2011, I led a workshop group to Zuccotti Park to conduct design ethnography with Occupy Wall Street. As an experiment, some of us engaged as citizens as well as observers and interviewers—we immersed ourselves in the work of the occupation. What we experienced there gave us a much richer understanding of what we observed. Once past the overwhelming feeling of being newcomers to the chaotic camp, we talked to people and joined in several activities. We felt the pride of accomplishment from riding a stationary-bike-powered generator to supplied electricity for the kitchen. We learned about frustrating internal politics by talking to people from different “factions.” We read in the library, joined in open discussions in the “think tank,” and several of us had a moment of anxiety as we witnessed the quick-acting volunteer security force deal with an altercation as it unfolded.

Our short visit gave us a brief and incomplete glimpse of the lives the occupiers led, but the immersion and the affective empathy it helped us build made it a more well-rounded one. We left equipped with both emotional and intellectual understandings of the occupiers’ experiences to draw on when analyzing and developing design ideas.

Does Empathy Blind Us to the Long-Term Consequences of Our Actions?

Bloom also asserts that empathy prevents us from seeing the whole picture. In a blog post that shares a title with a Paul Bloom article, designer Augusta Meill articulates how this problem surfaces in design—a focus on an individual at the expense of the system.

“Empathy’s great value as a design and business tool is that it offers palpable closeness to other people. This is by its nature singular and individualistic. This is wonderful in helping us solve problems that people care about and design experiences they love. But it can also excuse us from taking the broader view. I argue that our responsibility as designers (and, dare I suggest, as business people too) should be not only to the individual but to the society.”
Augusta Meill, “Against Empathy

She goes on to say, “empathy doesn’t account for system-level needs. Design needs to.” While I agree with that assertion, I take issue with one notion that she and Bloom share—that empathy and systems thinking are somehow mutually exclusive. Yes, methods that seek to rationalize the behavior of the individual user or focus too heavily on their needs and problems are not adequate to systems problems, but that doesn’t mean we abandon them as useless. They are and will remain an important aspect of a responsible design process. But our toolkit needs to expand.

An example from Meill’s article outlines a potential direction—a more system-based approach to empathy building through co-design. Sanergy is a company addressing the problem of public sanitation in Kenya—specifically the lack adequate sanitation facilities in economically impoverished areas. Their solution was not a product but a vertically integrated waste management business that would be effective in the economic and social context of the Nairobi slums.

As MIT students, they recognized the need to gain a first-hand understanding of the social problem they were addressing, so they decided to establish a proof-of-concept of the business concept (locally operated pay toilets that provide fertilizer for farming) on the ground in 2010.

They traveled to Nairobi, where they constructed a workshop space and fabrication tools and built two toilets using metal molds and cement. Team members installed one toilet inside a school and the other at a site in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums, with about 1 million inhabitants.

“We have to make sure [the centers] are viable enough for people to be able to make a living wage,” says Auerbach of Sanergy’s goal to start small. He and Vallabhaneni receive daily reports from managers at the two centers and are analyzing the data to determine areas of improvement for the pilot.
—In the World: Turning Waste into Profit

The team built their products using local labor and materials. They discovered through prototyping and iteration that they needed to invite local operators to establish franchised businesses around the toilets. They learned that they needed to run the process of waste removal and pivoted their output from biogas for cooking to fertilizer for farmers. These designers thought beyond the individuals and their needs and engaged the community directly to co-create a self-sustaining system that addresses a societal problem. They developed empathy for every participant in the system, not just the user. Having learned what was viable, they have scaled this empathic solution from their pilot study of two toilets to a business that provides 700 toilets across nine slums.

They took the opportunity to engage directly with all stakeholders and collaborate with them to gain an understanding the of the viability of their idea and optimize it for use in the broader system. They needed to get beyond the problems and needs of the individual user to gain an understanding of the complex ecosystem their products and services would inhabit. Their empathy did not blind them to the big picture, it helped to reveal it. One could argue that this expanded focus on all of the actors in the system was a more empathic approach than the more common focus on the individual user and their needs.

A Cautionary Tale

In his article, The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People’s Problems, Ethan Zuckerman provides a counter-example that takes Paul Bloom’s “cold-blooded” rational approach to its logical conclusion. Recently, Contently founder Shane Snow advocated a technological and economic solution to the very real problem of prison violence. However, his proposed solution—involving Soylent, Oculus and extended solitary confinement—would unquestionably cause extreme distress for the inmates he is interested in protecting.

And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

Snow’s obliviousness to the dynamics of the broader system, not only of the prison but of the justice system it serves, offers an alarming example of technology without empathy. It is an example so distressing that Zuckerman, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, uses it as a cautionary tale of “a solution that’s technically sophisticated, simple to understand, and dangerously wrong.” His call to action:

“How do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse?

In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest technology will solve social problems—and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive, and misguided? Can we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical systems that address hard problems?”
Ethan Zuckerman, The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People’s Problems

He offers a number of ingredients to a solution in the remainder of the article, including ethnography, co-design, reflective practice, and a theoretical framework based on Larry Lessig’s “four levers of social change.” He’s building a course around this very topic this fall that “will include deep methodological dives into codesign, and will examine using anthropology as tool for understanding user needs.” I expect the result of this exploration will attest to the value of anthropology and ethnography to get beyond user needs and uncover the value systems in play. It is refreshing to see this taking place at such a tech-focused environment. I look forward to hearing more about it.

Reframing the Act of Design

As Richard Buchanan points out in “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” the traditional approach to design assumes that problems have determinate, knowable conditions for which we can devise solutions. In contrast, the emerging classes of complex, “wicked” problems in design are not that well defined. Horst Rittel defines these wicked problems as “social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”

In a recent MIT Journal of Design article, Kevin Slavin lays the groundwork for an emerging practice of design for complex adaptive systems. He says we are already moving from a user-centered model to a participatory one in a system that is acknowledged to have no center.

“The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems. These are designers that do not understand themselves to be in the center of the system. Rather, they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers.”
—Kevin Slavin, Design as Participation.

A wide variety of methods have been created to generate empathy and wrestle the ambiguity of real-world user behavior into models that make empathic understanding accessible to decision-makers. Our processes and frameworks deconstruct and simplify human experience into units we can easily communicate and employ in our work. Many of these methods have been repurposed from the social sciences to the needs of design practice. However, when removed from their theoretical foundations and optimized toward identification of user needs, they they don’t account for the social implications of the work we do. This needs to change.

Products (services, policies, environments) play a social role in our lives whether we are using them or not. In order to work responsibly today, we need to adapt to the highly interrelated, social, many-to-many system that technology products currently inhabit. We need to come together across disciplinary boundaries—design, the social sciences, engineering—to create new methods that bring empathy to this level of complexity. We need to draw on social theory and ethics, on participatory design, reflective practice and especially ethnography to get beyond problems, needs, and use. We need to recognize that the user is not the center—that complex adaptive systems have no center. But the very last thing we should do is abandon empathy in the process. We can’t allow the cultural pendulum to swing too far in that direction; the consequences could be dire.

‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding? Ohhhh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?


Image: Doctor Love by Banksy (Photo by Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Bettex, Morgan. “In the World: Turning Waste into Profit.” MIT News. 19 Nov. 2010.
Bloom, Paul. “Against Empathy.” Boston Review. 1 Sept. 2014.
Bloom, Paul. “Imagining the Lives of Others.” New York Times. June 5, 2015. Web. July 27, 2016.
Bloom, Paul. “The Baby in the Well.” The New Yorker. 13 May 2013.
Bloom, Paul. Cadieux, Caitlin. “Against Empathy.” The Atlantic. 21 Mar. 2016.
Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8.2 (1992): 5-21.
Grossman, Sarah. “Company Brings Toilets To Kenya Slums, Turns Waste Into Fertilizer.” The Huffington Post. 14 July 2016.
Kolko, Jon. “Design Thinking Comes of Age.” Harvard Business Review. 01 Sept. 2015.
Meill, Augusta. “Against Empathy.” Continuum: Design Trends. 14 Sept. 2015.
New, Steve, and Lucy Kimbell. “Chimps, Designers, Consultants and Empathy: A “Theory of Mind” for Service Design.” Proc. of 2nd Cambridge Academic Design Management Conference. (2013).
Payne, John. “Teaching Ethnography For User Experience: A Workshop On Occupy Wall Street.” Ethnography Matters. 31 Aug. 2012.
Payne, John. “John’s War Story: An Ethnographic Encounter with Occupy Wall Street.” Portigal Consulting: War Stories. 8 Aug. 2013.
Seiden, Josh. “Learning From Live Systems: A Design Approach for Behavior.” Proc. of Interaction 16. Interaction Design Association, 17 Mar. 2016.
Slavin, Kevin. “Design as Participation.” Journal of Design and Science. 25 Feb. 2016.
Tierney, John. “Empathy May Be Overrated in an Election, and in a Leader.” The New York Times. 21 Mar. 2016.
Waytz, Adam. “The Limits of Empathy.” Harvard Business Review. 01 Jan. 2016.
Zuckerman, Ethan. “The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People’s Problems.” The Atlantic. 23 June 2016.

john payneJohn Payne is a Managing Director at Moment, a digital strategy and design consultancy with offices in New York and Chicago. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Design, and has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in design methods at Parsons and NYU. John is a past co-chair of the EPIC conference and current co-chair of Interaction 17, The Interaction Design Association’s 10th annual global design conference.


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John Payne, Moment