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Unlearning Empathetic Design & Its Ramifications

How has empathy evolved to become a tool for design colonization rather than becoming a helpful process of understanding?

The history of design was birthed through a process of understanding and improving. The emergence of capital greed along with the presence of design has created an empathy-focused narrative appropriating empathy for corporate profit. Companies have also encouraged intersections of empathy-focused design thinking processes into other modes of thought to improve product development, absolving challenges through creative solutions. Empathy, most often step 1-2 of the design thinking process, has been used as a segway to connect with other users, reinforcing the performative white-savior narrative, disillusioning the capitalistic nature of design.


— How it began

For my senior thesis I chose to write and make based on the topic of empathetic design. Ever since I was younger I knew that I wanted to work in the field of design. Coming from a low income family and wanting to pursue the arts I knew that I had to work in the lucrative intersection of tech and design if I wanted a chance of sustaining myself while also maintaining my dream.

While in college, I participated in empathy workshops, persona exercises, attended 'product design' classes, desperate to make connections with other designers while also becoming a designer who could truly 'empathize' with the user. The journey often felt difficult.

Many design prompts would begin with an issue .... *It was a lot of elitist white savor performing that I quite frankly didn't have much time for and didn't enjoy. The design thinking process made me feel uncomfortable, it felt like in the process of empathizing I was furthering myself from the user and growing a passive condescending attitude against the user. I couldn't quite put my finger on why or what made me feel uncomfortable but the act of putting yourself in one's shoes made it seem like their experience became a false pretense under my bias. How could I possible comprehend the full experience of the user without having gone through the experience myself, knowing that people undergo things differently. Having come from a lower-class family, and attending RISD, it truly opened my eyes to the injustices that is the arts and design education. It wasn't a place for creative equality, it was an institution that constantly pushed white savior motifs. It made me disheartened yet confused, knowing that the design world was built with the adversities of BIPOC people and funneled with the white savior design mindset.

Liz Jackson, a disability designer, talks on this issue of designing for disabilities at the Interaction Design Conference 19 titled Empathy Reifies Disability Stigmas. Liz criticizes the design thinking language, and how empathetic design has become a profitable portfolio piece in turn for disability gratitude. Designing for the disabled has become a process of pity to inspiration, where disabled people are disenfranchised in the process of prototyping and producing, and the credit often goes to the designers. Designers go to disabled individuals and point and say "That's a problem, that's also a problem" "What can we do to help," assuming that the disabled person is miserable and unable to do anything. This kind of attitude of "we're doing you (unabled bodies) a favor" is problematic for its condescending undertones and to a disabled person, harmful and rude.

My thesis hoped to deconstruct the 'empathetic' design process and the pervasive issues it continues to spread through workshops and institutions, and reframe how a continued disillusioned design process could damage the diversity and ethics of design.

Defining Empathy

— What does it mean?

Empathy at its truest definition is the understanding of another's emotions and situation, the act of putting yourself in another's shoes. Commonly confused with its sister, sympathy. The differences lie in how sympathetic understanding is an act of pity and sorrow, whereas empathetic understanding is an actionable engagement of emotional flow of the other. Empathy in design has been evolved into a 'Design Thinking' process, culturally divorcing it from what it meant to be originally, as it now has been appropriated by designers as a way of solving design challenges. Pathological altruism perfectly describes this situation where altruism(empathetic design) attempts to promote the welfare of others(BIPOC/minorities/marginalized identities) but results in unanticipated harm.

Empathy Appropriated

— Is design racist?

Last year, a video was uploaded on Twitter of two Facebook employees, one white and one darker-skinned, putting their hands underneath a soap dispenser. The white man put his hand underneath the soap dispenser and the soap would dispense, and whenever the darker skinned man put his hand underneath the soap dispenser, the soap wouldn't dispense. This led to an onslaught of tweet conversations arguing the reasoning behind the ethics of diversity in design. Was it a technical oversight? Or was it in an issue of diversity? Was the soap dispenser engineered to be racist? Or was there no one to point out and test the consideration of other colored hands?

Empathy, as it has been manifested in this context, keeps people with marginalized identities as perpetual subjects. We, you, as designers are trying to find them as research subjects but not as people part of y(our) team. It's problematic because designers keep using this language to pat themselves on their back. Trope design says that BIPOC are 'incorporated' in the process but in reality they are never given agency and are only under the illusion of 'diversity & inclusion.' It is an issue of agency, the oppressed are never actors and always acted upon. While designers ask these marketable questions for profit, framing their language around empathy and compassion, masking the problematic discomfort.

Decolonizing Empathy

— Design Thinking?Design Questioning?

An AIGA article written by Lily Smith titled Empathy–Honest Design Process of Hollow Sales Pitch outlines how the intersections of business and compassion contribute to the empty sales pitch that empathy brings about. Empathy's use of 'connecting' with the market also expands the product while corporations become more 'human' by appearing more compassionate. Smith questions this directly – "Can you really strike a balance between using empathy to design a legitimately better product, and using empathy to increase your profit margins without sounding insincere? Ironically, my ability empathize with a business' need to drive sales–on empathically designed goods or not–only reveals how shallow the word has become. And if they could really empathize with me, they'd find another, more honest way to sell me their product."

This design process of thinking about the user, using empathy as a way of understanding and creating a better product, only alienates the design/marketing process of actually making more honest products. Which brings the question: How do we as designers differentiate between actual and performed empathetic design? And how can we as designers perform actual compassionate-meaningful design?

As I try to deconstruct empathetic design into mindful pieces, I turned to sociology and psychology as ways of critiquing and analyzing. What sort of ramifications does empathetic design language bring to marginalized individuals and communities? Who is it for? And how does empathetic accuracy affect the bias of design?

My hypothesis is that empathy is nurtured more in those who come from marginalized backgrounds. Women, BIPOC, and other marginalized identities who are often forced into positions of listening where empathy becomes an instinct of survival. They have to live reactively to the daily injustices in their lives and empathy becomes an exhausting yet necessary task in reconciling unjust behavior.

Kraus and colleagues outline in Social Class, Contexualism, and Empathic Accuracy that social class which is indicated by wealth, income, education, and occupational prestige can influence empathic-accuracy. In the studies done, the researchers test to see if lower socioeconomic-class individuals can gauge their social environment better than those from upper socioeconomic-class. The theory is that lower-class individuals' lives are shaped by the lack of material wealth which causes them to be reactive to the dependent forces on their lives, thus nurturing lower-class individuals to be more aware and socially present. Upper-class individuals can control more factors in their lives therefore are not prone to the social threats that might be present in lower-class individuals. Although the article doesn't talk about race/gender/other identities, it goes hand in hand that social wealth disparity is affected by systemic racism, and that race/gender are also important intersections when thinking about empathic accuracy. In one of the studies, participants were given a chance to 'momentarily experience a lower sense of social-class rank' in order to increase their empathic accuracy. By manipulating their sense of social class and comparing themselves to individuals who place much higher on the social ladder in the United States, participants were able to experience a lower ranking of oneself. These participants would then take a test where they viewed 36 picture cropping of people's eyes expressing a variety of emotions, revealing that participants with a manipulated lower-class condition had a greater empathic accuracy than participants in the upper-class rank condition. This study reveals that a more humbling attitude regardless of social stature brings more positive empathic accuracies. The highlight of this study reveals that humility could improve upon the current design thinking process.

Is Design Hopeless?

— Is it?

Is design hopeless? Can we truly decolonize this institution and redesign 'design'?

Is design thinking an evil process? No! Design has done good for the world in many ways and has helped us a society to be innovative and creative. It has given us the power to access new ways of thinking and engaging. Design thinking was birthed a western concept, but as the world becomes more connected through technology, that way of thinking has become a tool of colonization rather than innovation. The idea of persona workshops