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Why empathy is critical for good design

18 January 2019

Should toilets in refugee camps have built-in lights? That might seem like a no-brainer – it certainly did to us when we were faced with this question. As it turns out, that’s a terrible idea.

This is an example that illustrates why we need to take the time to understand and build empathy for the people we’re designing for. Otherwise, we risk doing more harm than good.

At Pivotal Act, we work with impact-driven organisations to help them build technology that is focused on solving social, humanitarian or environmental problems. Our approach is iterative and centered around the needs of the people we are designing for. We work with our partners to understand the problem and we design technology that starts to address some of these issues. But before we can begin work on a transformative product or solution, we need to build empathy with our users.

By no means is this an easy process. Oftentimes we learn through trying something out and maybe getting it wrong. Here are a few lessons we’ve learnt along the way:

1. Involve community members to ensure you’re understanding their needs

We were working on toilet design for refugee camps, with Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund. When we started, camp toilets weren’t being used, because they don’t take into account safety issues or the community’s preferences. For example, due to their location they sometimes become the sites of sexual assault. Children tend to avoid them because they fear falling into the holes, which terrifyingly, does happen. Instead, people understandably openly defecate, which leads to serious spread of diseases.

We wanted to think about how to design toilets in a way that encourages use. We discussed whether there should be door locks, their location, or whether they are unisex or not. But one element that we didn’t think about was whether they should have lights built in – we simply assumed that they should. When we dug deeper and started talking to people who had spent lots of time in refugee camps, we learned that sometimes the only places with lights are the toilets. This meant that men tended to congregate there at night, and women didn’t feel safe using them. Had we not learnt this, our assumption that the toilets should have lights in could have led to seriously negative unintended consequences.

As this example demonstrates, you’ll end up with a far better end product if you involve people from the group for which  you’re designing at the beginning and throughout.

2. Use research to inform your decisions

When we conduct research around the problems that people face, we take on the responsibility of understanding their challenges accurately. Often, getting to grips with all the various elements of what it might be like living through difficult circumstances takes more time than is available. We need to gain enough information so that we can confidently move ahead in a short amount of time.

We start by doing ethnographic research to understand the context and the people we are designing for who are impacted by the problem. We observe and speak to people, exploring the specific problems they are facing and pull out common sentiments, both positive and negative. This includes researching the broader context of the space we are designing in, such as the social, cultural, environmental and economic aspects of the problem.

From the research you will start to see patterns. If you hear 5 or more people saying they are experiencing the same issue, that’s usually enough evidence to signify a trend. After a few rounds of research, you can start to prioritize certain areas to focus on and come up with some ideas to test and invalidate or validate your hypothesis.

3. Create design experiments to get feedback quickly

There are many different quick ways that you can create lean design experiments for technology. Earlier this year we worked with the Collaborative Cash Delivery (CCD) Network, a consortium of 15 international NGOs including World Vision, Save the Children and Oxfam, on a platform to help NGOs collaborate better around efforts to provide people with cash after an emergency, such as an earthquake, for example. This is an incredibly complex and technical problem, so to investigate it we made the system tangible. We mapped out the different components of the problem space, such as what happens when an emergency first occurs to collecting data on the needs of the community and local market. We asked people experienced in this work to draw their own experiences and challenges using paper, pens, cards and wooden characters – cheap and readily available materials. This helped us understand the underlying people problems and technological constraints to validate our hypothesis.

Mapping out the problem space/ Image: Pivotal Act

Another method of prototyping is Bodystorming, which helps us understand complex emotions and how people might experience a product or service through acting it out. Often the lightweight testing can yield the best feedback, which will give you just enough evidence to make a decision or prioritize a certain direction.

Bodystorming / Image: Pivotal Act

There are many other techniques out there to help you understand the people you’re designing for. Whichever process you follow, so long as its underpinned by a desire for empathy and a willingness to adapt based on what you find, you’ll be heading in the right direction for making the positive impact we’re all looking to create.

Image: Pivotal Act
Header Image: Amanda Jones on Unsplash

Ellie Ereira

co-lead, Pivotal Act

Ellie is co-lead of Pivotal Act, an initiative at Pivotal dedicated to collaborating with impact organisations to create technology that address social, humanitarian and environmental issues. She has tackled this challenge in the past from many different sectors, including at the World Bank, UK-based start-up OpenSignal, the US Department of Energy, and in academia. She has worked on projects such as setting up incubators in the Caribbean for clean tech entrepreneurs, and distributing mobile apps to map cell signals in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. She set up Pivotal Act while working as a product manager at Pivotal Labs.

Ellie has a masters in technology and policy from MIT and studied physics for her undergraduate degree at Oxford University. 

Aly Blenkin

co-lead, Pivotal Act

Aly is the co-lead of Pivotal Act, a new initiative in Pivotal, dedicated to building technology that address social, humanitarian and environmental problems. Prior to Pivotal Labs, Aly was a design consultant at ThoughtWorks and before that worked in academia at Parsons in Design and Technology. She has consulted across private and social impact sectors on projects with large corporate clients like HSBC and Volkswagen to humanitarian organizations such as, Red Cross and Save the Children.

Educated in Canada, New York, and Germany, Aly holds her master’s in Transdisciplinary Design, from Parsons in New York. She won a Rockefeller grant and was a finalist for the Fast Company Innovation awards during that time for her thesis. She also studied Service Design at Köln International School of Design in Germany and has bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design from Canada.