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Six years ago, during a tense job interview, an executive asked me what the most important trait was for a product leader. I responded, discerned the frustration in his movements, and then responded again. He cut me off.
“No, no, no … the most important trait is empathy.”
I left the interview dejected … and piqued. Here was a company that elevated a humanitarian trait like empathy into a cornerstone of its hiring process.
The next day the Internet set me straight. There’s empathy as the rest of the world understands it and “empathy,” an increasingly in-vogue tech term that’s foundational to both product management and design thinking.
The difference and why it matters
On the surface, empathy and “empathy” mean the same thing: the ability to put yourself into the shoes of another. But empathy connotes compassion and a broader concern for humanity, while “empathy” is a rebranding of the same, tired advice that’s been taught in business circles for thousands of years: know your audience.
To illustrate the difference, imagine a despised politician. That politician undoubtedly has great “empathy” with the electorate and knows what buttons and switches to manipulate for votes, but past election season he or she doesn’t worry about the people behind those votes.
Does it matter that our multifaceted word has been slivered?
A generation ago a friend had the good fortune of meeting Mary McCarthy, the eminent woman of letters. During their conversation, the word “patriotism” came up. My friend talked about how his generation avoided the term because of its associations with authoritarianism. McCarthy countered: “You mustn’t let them take your WORDS from you.”
McCarthy was right. Every word we cede or water down leaves a vacuum that becomes difficult to replace. In the case of empathy vs. “empathy,” it’s hard to argue that we should nurture empathy when everyone already thinks they’re doing a great job with “empathy.” And that’s the point of this article.
Successful companies nail “empathy” every day, but many of those neglect empathy to their detriment. That’s because the process of building “empathy” and empathy dramatically differ.
Designer A builds up “empathy” by:
- Interviewing their audience
- Videotaping their audience
- Analyzing audience data
- Writing personas to describe their audience
- Working at multiple companies that service the same audience
- Sharing notes with peers about their audience in a co-working space
Designer B builds up empathy by:
- Consuming media from different perspectives
- Mentoring the underprivileged
- Living abroad
- Making friends with a wide spectrum of people
- Working lots of different jobs
- Hanging out at the local public library
Specialization vs. open-mindedness
The obvious reaction to both approaches is that “empathy” is essential while empathy is nice-to-have, like the “plus” section of a job description. In reality, both are necessary because each list above hides an underlying pattern.
On every bullet point, Designer A grooms specialization while Designer B grooms open-mindedness. And when it comes to design or product management or marketing, specialization is important for market fit, but open-mindedness is critical for future success. That’s because empathetic open-mindedness spurs:
- Creativity. The most interesting ideas or solutions often come when you connect disparate dots.
- Long-term thinking. The designer with limited compassion will stop the moment the customer is superficially pleased, but the designer with compassion will keep pushing until the customer is fulfilled.
- Big picture focus. Spending too much time on one narrow customer segment leads to stereotyping, which can create products that don’t aim high enough or lack verve. Building for the average can also cause one to forget about those with handicaps like colorblindness or arthritis.
By elevating empathy, I don’t mean to demean its spin-off; products fail all the time because they couldn’t connect with their audience. It’s just that most people and organizations already work on “empathy” by design and have tools and methodologies, like Lean or Net Promoter Score, to drive the process. In contrast, the development of empathy is usually left to chance (and too often that chance takes the form of a tragedy).
There are plenty of tech examples of what happens when you practice “empathy” in a vacuum. Here are three:
- The publishers and ad networks that profited for years from malicious or deceiving banner ads are shocked, SHOCKED that many visitors turned to ad blockers.
- I wrote previously about the rise of annoying email pop-up prompts that confused and harassed visitors. In the short term, those prompts led to extra email signups, but we’re already seeing the repercussions. Soon after I wrote the article, Google announced that it would start penalizing the websites that employed them.
- Facebook is a master of “empathy.” It deduced that people will engage with news headlines on their dashboards. But it didn’t care about the quality of those headlines and now it’s being lambasted for spreading false stories that may have swayed the election.
In all three cases, the companies took the lazy way out because they didn’t have the compassion to push them toward more creatively demanding, long-term solutions.
What’s the solution?
We can start by calling “empathy” by its real name: audience expertise. This is better than merging empathy and “empathy” because we showed earlier that they develop along different tracks.
We can stop leaving the development of empathy to chance and begin designing for it. We can also do a better job of recruiting for empathy.
While we’re at it, we can rethink dehumanizing tech terms like “user.”
And if you think this is all too much to ask, remember that the tech community has come together before to rebrand the obsolete. Many years ago, they decided the term “user interface” was lame. They changed it to “user experience.” They were half right!
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