How to Write with Empathy

“There exists a new upper class that’s completely disconnected from the average white American and American culture at large, argues Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist and author.” –Do You Live in a Bubble? (PBS)

I live in a bubble. I have a career I chose and love. My friends are informed and enjoy political discussions, but they are generally liberal and left-leaning. Luckily, I have family that can help me out if I need financial support. I have fought for many things and endured tough times, but I have also had opportunities to travel and take on internships. I have always had a safety net.

Sometimes that can make it difficult to find empathy for people outside my bubble.

Who Cares About Your Bubble?

While the quiz I referenced earlier (Do You Live in a Bubble?) refers to bubbles in terms of socioeconomics and politics, the metaphor of a bubble translates to all areas of life, education, and design. A bubble is created by self-reinforcing knowledge. It may come from cookies and online tracking, or working with people who are experts in similar fields to you. You may just be in a bubble because of your patterns. You go to the same office, house, coffee place, and gym ever day. These patterns build a bubble of familiarity. They inherently separate us from people with different experiences.

When you work as a content strategist, you are responsible for facilitating communication. We remind stakeholders “you are not your user.” We build empathy and validate design assumptions through research. I care about my bubble because it can unintentionally influence my work. I remember that others don’t vote the way I do. But I may forget that they hear different news, see different advertisements, and take away different lessons from similar experiences. The thicker my bubble is, the less I can empathize with my target audience.

A bubble can mark the difference between sympathy and empathy. I can sympathize from within my bubble. But I can’t truly understand how someone else feels. I need to learn enough about others’ experiences to pop my bubble.

Write with Empathy

Being in a bubble doesn’t make you a bad person. But it can be a hindrance in experiencing empathy.

Bubbles are constantly building and growing. They are as naturally occurring as mold, and as important to scrub away. It’s our duty as designers to find our bubbles over and over again and learn about what’s outside. To do that, we need to stop berating ourselves and others for having bubbles. We need to look through them. Then we need to move onto our next bubble, and the next. They are constantly building around us as new devices come out and our experiences make us into experts in some areas and novices in others.

Here are 5 steps to make sure your bubble isn’t holding you prisoner:

  1. Look for your bubble, and find its edges
  2. Dig into user research to learn what’s beyond the bubble
  3. Catalogue ideological and behavioral differences between you and your target audience
  4. Identify your audience’s bubble(s)
  5. Keep questioning, keep learning, keep going


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