The Difference Between Understanding and Empathy: How To Communicate Design Research

A design researcher studies people in a particular context. The context can be physical, geographic, or conceptual. For example, a researcher may strive to learn about how work is done in a particular business, in order to optimize the process. Or, a researcher may seek to learn about the way a different culture engages with a particular technological advancement, like mobile phone use in developing countries. The research goal may be to understand, or it may be to empathize, and the two aren’t the same.

Understanding is about gaining knowledge. I may have no knowledge of a particular context – say, micro-finance in South Africa – because I’ve never encountered that in my daily life. If I’ve never read about it, experienced it, or discussed it, there’s no reason to think I can design to support it, and so the role of design research in this case is to learn. When the goal is to learn, the design research output will typically be factual statements. This is how the system works today. These are the people that make up the system. These are the tools and artifacts being used.

Empathy is about gaining a set of feelings. The goal is to feel what it’s like to be another person. That’s kind of a strange goal, because it’s impossible to achieve – you can never really be another person, which is what it would take to truly achieve this. But you can get close, and so design research intended to build empathy is really about feeling what other people feel. Assuming you aren’t an 85 year old woman, consider for a second what it feels like to be a 85 year old woman. This consideration is still analytical: it’s about understanding. You need to get closer to experiencing the same emotions that am 85 year old woman experiences, and so you need to put yourself into the types of situations she’ll encounter. What does it feel like to drive, given the various physical changes that the human body encounters when it gets old? What does it feel like to read the paper? What does it feel like to use email? The output will be hard to explain to someone else, because feelings are personal. While you can write detailed requirements and use cases about things you understand, it’s particularly difficult to tell someone else about things you feel.

The split between understanding and empathy is overly reductive, made only to illustrate the distinctions. In reality, most design research is about both understanding and empathizing at once, and in the context of learning, experience contributes to both.

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There are a few reasons you might want to communicate your understanding and empathizing to someone else. You might be on a team, and your goal is to create alignment around the findings. You might be a consultant, and your goal is to create a sea-change for your client.  Or, you might be hunting for a job, and you want to show that you are, in fact, a qualified design researcher.

You might want to communicate things that actually happened or that you actually saw. These are discrete data points acting as facts, and because they actually happened, you can communicate them in a spreadsheet or bullet points on a slide. And that’s typically how these things are communicated. But a better way to communicate them is through pictures with quotes from real people, because this provides both the context of an action or activity as well as a view of intent. What people say, and what people do, provide clues for what people want to do and how people want to be.

Because it’s not practical to communicate everything you saw – it would take too long – there’s a form of selection that occurs. When you make selections, and choose this over that, it’s important to illustrate your selection intent. If you spent two hours in the field, you saw two hours of data. Why did you select five pictures to display? Was there something particularly interesting about them? Do they provide evidence of inefficiency? Evidence of a cultural norm that you want to highlight?

You also might want to communicate things you actually felt. These are hard, but not impossible, to describe – these are emotions. But description is not going to be enough to really get other team members to feel what you felt. I felt sad doesn’t capture the type of sadness, and won’t be enough of a call for action. Typically, it requires data over time to illustrate emotions, because this provides a baseline and a point of reference. This might take the form of a video clip, a timeline, a series of photos, or some other way of showing time-based narrative.

You might want to communicate your interpretations of what happened and your interpretations of how you felt. This is the assignment of meaning to the data: it’s your introspection on why things happened. When you interpret, you’ll begin to combine data in new ways, bring in external sources of data, compare, contrast, and judge the data you gathered. Typically, this interpretation requires some form of visual diagramming – a map, or a chart – to illustrate these forced and provocative connections.

Or, you might want to communicate the implications of your interpretations of what happened and how you felt. The implications act as design constraints, and point towards new design ideas. I’ve found it most useful to illustrate these implications through sketches: this is the translation of data, gathered in the field, to actionable design stuff. Even if you are a design researcher and not an “actual designer”, this is still in your realm of job responsibility. A deck of slides can be ignored (and typically is). A sketch will be much more likely to be used.