Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Empathy?

Disclaimer:  These thoughts, opinions, and observations are mine, and mine alone.  They are not the thoughts of my fellow Dash team members, only myself. 

I recently had the immense pleasure of participating in the 2019 Dash Hackathon in Helsinki (organized by the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society – “Aaltoes”) which is the largest design hackathon in Europe.  In this hackathon there were over 220 participants from 40+ different nationalities that came together specifically for this event. 

https://www.dash.design

I knew that this hackathon was going to be a gigantic time commitment to squeeze into my fulltime work and student schedule.  I imagined that I would meet countless new people and possibly make a new friend or two.  As time crept closer to the event, I ruminated about the design process and wondered how the actual process of designing would unfold over the course of the event.

This was the schedule for the Dash Hackathon (there were two additional prep events the week prior to this main event)

Now that the event is over, I can reflect that the element of this hackathon which took me completely utterly by surprise was the profoundly visceral and emotional rollercoaster of a ride this journey took me on. 

For this post I do not want to focus on the specifics of the design process or what my team ultimately created.  What I am taking away from this experience is different than what I had initially imagined.  What I am left with is a list of existential questions for myself about who I am as a person, and what kind of service designer I want to be. 

As we all know, the cornerstone of service design is empathy (I realized this weekend this crucial element could be what drew me to service design in the first place).  The ability to put yourself in the shoes of others, see the world through their eyes and then walk a mile in those shoes.  All while keeping this perspective in mind as you create whatever amazing user-centered design solutions we service designers will ultimately come up with.

I think that empathizing with the user is an integral part of service design and it is very important to lay this as the foundation of everything we as service designers will do, however after this weekend I have come to realize that everything has a limit; empathy included. 

It is not possible to design a solution that suits everyone.  That is a fact of service design every designer must accept, and it is also how I am approaching this post.  This post is not for everyone.  This post is written for those of you who may have a propensity to over empathize.  For those of you who can relate, please read on.  For those of you who can’t relate, if you read on anyway, maybe you will notice this trait in a fellow designer and send them this post.

I decided when I signed up for Dash that I really wanted to be part of the challenge for Startup Refugees.  This is a Finnish NGO that has made it their mission to match refugees and immigrants with jobs here in Finland.  They were only founded three years ago, but they are already having a significantly positive impact on the employment situation of refugees and immigrants in Finland.  They currently have two offices; one in Helsinki and one in Oulu. 

If you would like to read more about them check out this link: https://startuprefugees.com/

I really wanted to be a part of this challenge more than any of the other challenges because this issue really speaks to me on a personal level.  I am a black American immigrant who has lived in Finland for the past six years.  I am very happy with where I am now in life both personally and professionally, but it was not an easy journey.  I know how hard I had to work to be where I am now, and that I did not get to where I am now on my own.  Sure, I have a good work ethic, but I also had a great network, a bit of luck, and people who were willing to take a chance on me.  I was really excited to see if I could somehow find a way to help other immigrants and refugees (whose situations coming to Finland were/are infinitely harder and more complicated than mine) find a way to become employed in Finland. 

I believe that through gainful employment an immigrant or refugee can have dignity, community, and a purpose for life in their new country of residence.  This feeling of comfort and belonging is something I genuinely wish I could give to anyone and everyone who wants it.

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, I do not want to go into specific details of the design challenge because I want to focus on my emotional journey and findings related to that.  For the sake of brevity let’s just say the challenge was related to Startup Refugees’ larger focus of helping to find refugees and immigrants employment in Finland.  This is what we in the realm of service design call a wicked problem.

In Richard Buchanan’s report “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”, he refers to a report by Rittel (1967) that defines a wicked problem as:

“A class of 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.” (1992, 15)

Wicked problems are manifested in the major issues and systemic failures of our society today.  Issues such as climate change, poverty, multicultural integration, healthcare, and so forth are problems so prolific in nature that there are no single solutions or tangible ends to their plight.

Source: https://transitiondesignseminarcmu.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Wicked-problems-flower.png

That being said, with this challenge being quintessentially wicked, there was no way we would possibly be able to fix this challenge in a 48-hour hackathon session.  To be fair and very clear, this is not what the challenge was asking of us.  It was asking for ways to help improve a small part of the issue so that they could more successfully match their clients with work or help immigrants and refugees better understand the foreign job market in which they are attempting to enter. 

However, with an issue this complex where do you even begin?

As a team, on that first day (Friday) we began the hackathon creative, upbeat, and ready to tackle the world.  On the second day (Saturday) that emotional rollercoaster shot full speed out of the launch bay.  The day started well, but by the middle of the day that upbeat and playful attitude was all but dead.  Our mentor repeatedly asked us where our playful attitude had gone and eventually encouraged us to go get some air together outside the venue to try to regain the spirit from the day before.  We got a bit more playful after that, but something personally inside me had shifted that I never could quite reset.  By later that night we had a working solution concept, and after starting again early Sunday morning we were able to finalize our idea and proudly present it later that afternoon as a possible solution to their challenge. 

I was very proud of the solution we came up with as a team and although some people may have thought that my closing lines of the pitch were sappy and maybe just for show, I honestly meant every word I wrote, rehearsed, and delivered as a closing.  The event ended later that night and I went home feeling happy, physically tired (this I understood- the hackathon was long), but also incredibly emotionally exhausted.  I felt like my inner child had just run an ultra-marathon through a mine field.  I felt acutely emotional and I wanted to figure out why.  I had been emotional since the second day of the challenge and those feelings just kept compounding until the challenge was over and I could finally go home.  Would I have felt this way if I worked on any of the other non-wicked problem challenges? Was I too close to the subject? Probably.

I began a search where all great internet searches begin (google) and stumbled across a blog that pretty much summed up the personal issue I faced during this challenge.  It is post is titled “The Dilemma of Designers’ Empathy Delusions” by Jason Mesut (2018).  In it he states:

“I have three challenges to the importance of empathy. To strengthen designer performance by battling what I feel is an ideal that is often delusional and misguided.

Two of my challenges are likely to be unpopular, and the third will probably be appreciated by many:

1.Most designers are not actually that empathic to end users

2.Empathy isn’t that valuable and unique a quality for designers

3.We should care more about people beyond users”

I will link the entire article because I think it is a really good read. However, I would like to focus on the 2nd and 3rd points he makes in this article.  In his second point that questions the value of empathy, and he gives a good example of the dangers of over empathizing with the following example:

“Imagine a doctor.  Imagine if she had high empathy.  She would struggle to make decisions for the population she helps.  If one of her patient(s) suffered, she would suffer.  The pain would impede the process of resolution.  It’s why many healthcare professionals build up barriers to the emotions and the pain of the patients they serve.  It helps them make better judgement calls. 

I’m not saying a designer shouldn’t care.  Often, they should.  But I’m not sure that empathizing over every user they meet can really be that productive or helpful.”

Now I know this for some people may sound a little over the top, but I think that this is a real danger for some designers that work specifically with wicked problems, or any other issues that are highly emotional, in which putting yourself into the shoes of others may elicit extremely deep feelings of empathy and compassion that are much deeper than what is productively necessary for the purposes of service design.

The article goes on to talk about what happens when your over empathizing can cause you to lose sight of the larger picture.  In your compassion driven quest to create real change for the end user you run the risk of losing empathy and sight of the other players in the game; the other clients and stakeholders in the relevant network who are all a part of the challenge you are hoping to solve.

The author proposes a framework for an empathy map where you consciously adjust your feelings up or down as necessary while also keeping in mind other players besides the end user:

Source: Jason Mesut https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf
Source: Jason Mesut https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf

You can read the whole post here: https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf

I wholeheartedly believe that empathy must exist for great service design.  However, I now believe there is a spectrum.  A spectrum of levels of conscious empathy every designer must have, and this spectrum should be personally re-evaluated during all phases of the design process to ensure it is evenly distributed across all people the new design will affect; users, clients, and stakeholders alike. 

I could not imagine being as deeply emotionally connected to an issue that I would be working with for a prolonged period of time without emotionally burning myself out.  Though I did not appear to be overly emotional or stressed during the event (and I did have a lot of fun too), I took mental note of how exhausting this challenge was, and wondered how I would deal with this kind of problem if it was my everyday job.  That is what lead me on this introspective journey and critical evaluation of the weight of empathy in service design.

I am fully aware that had I done a different challenge, I would not have had the emotional response I did. However, I am glad I experienced everything exactly as I did.  It gave me time to reflect on my emotions and myself.    

I had an amazing time at Dash and would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to be a part of this great event.  I would also like to give my deepest thanks to Startup Refugees for all of the great work they do and wish them nothing but the best in the future.  Most of all, I would like to thank my amazing team members for all of their hard work, and I am very happy for the new friendships I have made. 

Dash Hackathon 2019 Team #39!!!

 By: Johanna Johnson

Sources

Buchanan, Richard 1996. Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. In Margolin, V. & Buchanan, R. The Idea of Design. A Design Issues Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 

Mesut, J. 2018. The Dilemma of Designers Empathy Delusions. Posted 9 December. https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf

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