I was reading an article this week and heard that some people are getting tired of the word empathy and how it fits into the product development process. An honest fatigue that seems to come from user experience “experts” overusing and misusing the word as a catch-all for; informed opinion, feelings, or what they believe about a product. But empathy is a critical human skill needed in the future of intelligently automated systems, so it can’t go away, but it can be refined and sharpened.
Empathy is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (reference and reference). And if you’re making anything for someone else empathy is a painfully important skill. The hard part is how we get to an understanding of empathy and how to apply that knowledge to what we make and how we work.
Two ways that we get to an understanding of others; imagination and research.
Empathy as a skill means we imagine how someone else is feeling, yet imagining is not always enough and that’s where research is needed.
That’s the secret, empathy is both a skill of imagination and an understanding gap that we fill with research by connecting with those we hope to have empathy for. And with products becoming progressively complex for broader more diverse audiences research is needed more and more to augment our imagination.
So if you are getting fatigued by hearing about empathy, simply replace the word empathy with what you mean, “imagining how others feel” or “researching to fill an understanding gap”.
The future requires empathy, sometimes we just have to be clear what we mean when we say empathy.