Stuck at home, we participated in Katja Tschimmel’s Design Thinking Masterclass through Zoom. And it made us think: Is it possible to gain genuine empathy remotely? Or is it the stuff of mind reading heros in Hollywood movies?
Empathy is a core concept of design thinking. Indeed, it is fundamental in the phases of inspiration, observation, discovery, and understanding, depending on which process variation of design thinking is used (Tschimmel 2020).
In “Change by design”, Tim Brown (2019) describes empathy as putting yourself in another persons shoes, seeing through the eyes of another, and as such gain a subjective understanding of their experience. Quite succinctly, this sums up the psychological process of empathy. But how can we make that happen with virtual interaction only, given that it’s possible at all?
According to Kouprie and Sleeswijk Visser there are two types of empathy: Affective and cognitive. Affective is an immediate emotional response, and cognitive is understanding the emotional state of another person. They state that “Motivation is crucial for an effective process”, but don’t mention Goleman’s third type of empathy explicitly: Compassionate empathy which he describes as “knowing, feeling and being motivated to help, if needed”. (Goleman,1995; Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser 2009).
In order for compassionate empathy to occur, there are three neurocognitive processes that need to happen (Lieberman, 2015):
- Mind reading – imagining someone else’s experience,
- Affect matching – imitating someone else’s experience and feeling what the other person is feeling and
- Empathetic motivation – being motivated do something about it, providing the two frist are in place.
Of course, these processes happen entirely in our brains and bodies. But they do require input, which should at least in some instances be possible to generate through remote communication or observation. Yet, full immersion in the non-digital experience of a person whom we’re trying to empathise with, seems to us quite impossible.
Gaining empathy is a tricky thing
Empathy doesn’t happen quickly and easily. It requires time, effort, and genuine interest (Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser 2009). Lucy Kimbell (2009) calls for sound ethnographic research methods to be able to properly understand and serve people’s needs. So in order to be empathetic, there has to be a real connection with the person, which can be built through for example collaboration and co-creation.
In his book, Tim Brown (2019) is not convinced by what the internet has to offer in regards to empathy in design. But the book is over 10 years old (we listened to the revised edition from 2019). Today, we are much more used to working with online tools to create connections between participants and to co-create online. The problem in online setting can often be the time frame: we are still not used to long online sessions which makes it difficult to establish a real connection.
Feeling connected during the masterclass
Our mentalizing and mirroring abilities are heavily influenced and are more active with visual stimuli (Lieberman, 2015).
So seeing each other’s intimate home environments, with family members “bombing our screens”, can perhaps enhancethe experience of collaborating and co-creating remotely. At least, this was the feeling we were left with: Even though the two days spent looking at a screen with headphones on were very tiring, there was an underlying feeling of genuine connection.
Written by Ana, Neea and Erlend
- Brown, Tim (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June, 84–95. http://www.ideo.com/images/uploads/thoughts/IDEO_HBR_Design_Thinking.pdf
- Brown, Tim (2019). Revised edition Change by design: how design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
- Goleman, Daniel (1996), Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London. UK
- Kimbell, L. (2009), Rethinking Design Thinking., Liverpool, European Academy of Management.
- Lieberman, M. D. (2014). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Broadway Books. New York, US
- Tschimmel, K. (2020). Design Thinking Masterclass held at SID Laurea.