†Please Pay Attention to Your Tour Guide

Imagine you are in Beijing. You are visiting your grown daughter who moved there five months ago. In addition to seeing all the sights with your daughter, you are curious about how she lives there–what is her day-to-day life like? You ask her about this, and she says, “Let’s go walk around. I’ll show you.”

Search for Empathy

Bringing empathy to design is very important if you want to add meaning to the products and services we create. In this series Indi Young (author of Mental Models and founding partner of Adaptive Path) shares her thoughts about this subject.

See all posts

Related posts:

Following your daughter around her neighborhood in Beijing is a metaphor for non-directive, generative interviewing. During the interview, you want to end up with enough inner thoughts and feelings to empathize with your participant. Similarly, on this tour you want to get a feeling for what it’s like to be your daughter living there.

What’s Empathy to My Organization?

To empathize means to comprehend another person well enough that, given a scenario, you can act and react the way she would, make decisions based on her principles–dropping your own actions, reactions, and principles for a small period of time. Empathy is putting yourself–cleansed of your own style of thinking–in this person’s place. Empathy requires imagination and interpretation. I think it’s a lot like what an actor must do when playing a new character.

Since you’re probably some kind of designer or researcher, not an actor, empathy as you work is for exploration and definition. It allows you to sketch a framework for what types of people will be using the thing you are making and what types of people won’t be using it. It helps you recognize the other dimensions in your customers. It helps you switch from categorizing people according to their needs to organizing people by behaviors and principles. This switch will have an effect on which strategy you choose for your immediate work. It will highlight and define details that you had previously made assumptions about.

So, Back to Beijing and Your Daughter


CC BY-NC-ND Aurelio.Asaian via Flickr

Your daughter–let’s call her Song–leads you downstairs and out of the apartment building onto a residential street. She turns right and leads you along the street toward a more commercial avenue, passing a few young men playing a board game on a little table.

Song nods to the one man who looks up at her, and he nods back. You continue a few paces more and she turns to you, saying, “I see those guys playing there a lot of the time. I think they recognize me now.”

You think that it must be nice to live in a neighborhood where people recognize each other. Then you wonder if that’s how Song feels. You ask her, “Why do you mention it?” She replies, “I’m starting to feel like it’s okay for me to be here, like people think of me as a regular person. At first I was always getting startled looks, so now that I’ve lived here a few months, it’s like I’m nothing new. That feels good. I like it that I can just go about normal life without feeling like I have to explain why I’m here or justify it or something. It just feels better this way, less out-of-kilter.” You take a few more steps wondering what out-of-kilter felt like. Then you ask Song. She says, “It was just … I came home one day with a backpack full of my laundry, and grocery bags tied to straps, hanging down because I needed my hands free for my phone and my keys. People I passed kept staring at me like I was a parade float or something. I felt like I was doing something culturally wrong, but I wasn’t. There are all sorts of people who carry lots of stuff at once, so how was I different? I guess they were just trying to see if the things I was carrying are things they recognize, or something. And of course they recognize the grocery bags and folded socks in the mesh pockets of my backpack. So now I count as normal, and no one stares. It’s a relief.”
You smile to yourself, starting to think about a similar experience you had at Song’s age, but that’s when Song turns the corner onto the busier street. You bring yourself back to the present and follow her.

After a block and a half, Song points to a noodle shop across the street and says, “That’s where I go get noodles.” The shop is little more than a window with an overhang. There are a couple of people waiting in line.

CC BY-NC-SA Remko Tanis via Flickr

You’re surprised it’s so small, but you remind yourself that not everything tasty has to come from fancy restaurants. That’s when you realize you are assuming the noodles are tasty and you are applying your own judgments. You ask, “You like the noodles there?” Song smiles and exhales in a little laugh. “Yeah,” she says. “They’re good.

They’re close. And they’re much nicer here than the other noodle shop I was going to before.” “Nicer?” you ask. Song rolls her eyes and says, “Oh yeah. The owners of the other noodle shop yelled at each other a lot. It made me uncomfortable. And when I saw … Well, let me show you! The other noodle shop is right around the corner.” She grins at you and speeds up the pace, crossing at an intersection and eventually turning at the next corner. “There’s the other noodle shop. Look carefully.”

CC BY-NC-SA Mary Helen Leonard (MaryMakesDinner) via Flickr (Note: This story is fictitious. This shop might actually be better than the other shown. You might want to try them both and decide for yourself.)

You look. There are bins of produce and other goods crowded around the shop entrance on the ground. You realize this shop is not just selling noodles, but also other groceries. “What am I supposed to see?” you ask. Song says, “Lots of the stuff sits on the ground for days, and I’ve seen insects on it, and even mud from the rain splattering up on the vegetables. Even though they probably wash it before they cook it, I just didn’t want to eat food that was sitting out like that.” Songs eyes slide to look farther down the street. You accept what she says as “the truth” for her, even though you don’t agree, which is something you learned to do a few years ago when she was still living with you. She is a different person and didn’t inherit all your own priorities. You want to ask her about the grocery store where she buys her other groceries. Is it near here, a few streets over? But before you can ask, Song gestures with her chin, saying, “My friend lives just up the street. I’ll show you, and then take you to where she and I both work.” You realize that you should pay attention to what Song wants to show you, not ask about things you are wondering about that she hasn’t brought up. So you follow her up the road to toward the apartment building where her friend lives, while Song tells you how she and her friend met and what they have in common.

When you are in front of the apartment building, Song says, “She lives on the fifth floor, here in the front of the building.” You look up and say, “I bet her floor’s actually the fourth one, physically, but they skipped the label ‘four’ since it sounds like the word for death.” Your daughter looks at you from under lowered eyebrows. “Not this building, Mom. There’s a fourth and a fifth floor.” She turns to lead you away, and the rest of what she was going to tell you about her friend’s apartment hangs unsaid in the air. With chagrin, you realize you only said that to impress her, and it cut off the conversation and made Song feel interrupted and out of control of the story. You resolve to keep your “expert” observations to yourself henceforth.

Interviewing for Empathy

This example of following Song around her neighborhood in Beijing, trying not to ask about things she hasn’t talked about, and trying to notice when you make your own assumptions about what she’s trying to express is exactly like an interview with a participant. You refrain from interrupting to insert your own experiences or knowledge into the conversation. You skip the subjects that your participant walks past and zero in on the subjects your participant points out. You make sure you understand it from her perspective, not from your own experience.
You avoid asking about topics that are “a few streets over.” If she looks down an alleyway and makes some exclamation about it, you are allowed to find out why, to see if there is a story that she experienced there. But if that alleyway isn’t important to her–if she has no story about it–don’t pursue it. Even if it’s the one alleyway you were hoping she was going to talk about, avoid bringing it up. She has nothing substantial to say about it if she didn’t point it out herself.

Empathy is about getting Song’s point of view, not about satisfying your curiosity about your high-priority topics.

Indi Young

Indi Young is a problem solver by heart. She is the author of 'Mental Models' (Rosenfeld Media) and has been working as a consultant on web applications since 1995. In 2001 she co-founded Adaptive Path. Indi has worked with many different clients, including Visa, Charles Schwab, Sybase, Agilent, Dow Corning, Microsoft, and PeopleSoft.

One comment on this article

  1. eBeth on

    So this is like slacker interviewing – I, the interviewer, come unprepared. I let the interviewee lead the interview while being attentive to the things she leaves unsaid. Then I can probe further. This is much different than what I’m use to.