What is Empathy?

A few weeks back, I judged a competition of web design and information architecture (a topic I feel somewhat under-educated to address). One of the categories under consideration was “empathy.” I guess it’s like the old, more primitive, “user-friendly” concept, but deeper. So I asked a colleague to explain it more fully and this is what she said:

“Empathy is a defining characteristic of the relationship between designers and users when design is concerned with user experience. A designer is said to be user-centered when he or she has empathy for the user. Designers have customer empathy by spending time with them, understanding their needs, and seeing first-hand what they want, where the gaps are. This observation generates new ideas and insights that even the customers themselves may not be able to articulate. Sometimes customers are so entrenched in a way of doing something that they may not be able to see a new way of doing something. Thus, ‘empathic design’ allows designers a way to see a new solution.”

I also found, to my surprise, that there is an empathy symbol (above and here). Empathy is not just a buzz; it’s an entire movement. And if you want to use the symbol to announce you have empathy on board, “You may copy, distribute and transmit the material on this site and the empathy symbol
as long as you attribute the work to Empathysymbol.com.
You may not use this work for commercial purposes without additional license.
You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.”

So what I want to know is, when did empathy become first, a strategy, and second, a brand? Can you shed some empathetic (or sympathetic) light on the subject?

And don’t forget this shameless plug: There are only a couple of spots left for my web presentation today, the first in an upcoming series for Print. “Designer + Client: Steven Heller’s Success Stories” will cover various working approaches and client relationships from my warped perspective. It begins at 4:00 p.m. Go here to sign up!

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes a weekly column for The Atlantic online and is the "Visuals" Columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of over 160 books on design and visual culture. And he is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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