How Do You Build Actionable Empathy?

The app Samaritan will tell you the name, and story of a homeless people near you. Created by Jonathan Kumar, it is designed to boost empathy and drive people to see who they’re walking by. Samaritan encourages empathy, which is also the first step in the Design Process. But is it actionable empathy? Will it drive people to take action?

The Importance of Empathy

At the risk of being redundant, empathy is key to designing a great user experience. To quote Brené Brown:

When someone’s kind of in a deep hole and they shout out from the bottom and they say “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed” and then we look and we say “hey” and we climb down, “I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.” Sympathy is “Ooof! It’s bad, uh huh. Uhhh no, you want a sandwich?”

Brené Brown on Empathy

If you empathize with someone, you understand how they feel, without judgement. That’s necessary for UX design. Without empathy we have people building wells that no one asked for. With empathy we help people solve problems. But is empathy alone enough?

Actionable Empathy

The Samaritan app encourages empathy. But it goes further: the app also urges users to donate money, and provides an incentive for people experiencing homelessness to meet with social service providers, who can help more than a few dollars would. This is actionable empathy.

The NGOs who built the wells I referenced earlier jumped straight to a solution, without empathy. You need empathy, but to truly learn you need a lens through which to view the information.

How do you put empathy to action?

  • Before speaking with people, make a list of the assumptions you’re trying to prove or disprove.
  • Consider the context: what problem have you noticed that you hope to solve?
  • After conducting research (interviews, observations, or otherwise), take a deeper look at the problem: is the problem people struggle with the same one you hoped to solve? If it isn’t, are you willing to shift your plan?

The key to active empathy is twofold. First, you must be willing to not only learn, but to take action. And second, you must be willing to listen. When you listen to others, much like in ethical thinking, you need to be open to change.

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