Sunday, February 20, 2005


from empathic design to empathic engineering

A number of people talk about empathic design -- using various techniques to learn and represent the needs of users, so that designs reflect these needs. It can take a lot of skill and talent to spot these unarticulated needs, and make them visible -- and actionable. While it's a wonderful concept, one I practice in my own work, it does have the disadvantage of adding a layer of interpretation to the process of communication between maker and user.

I have come across a couple of stories that speak to something different: what might be called empathic engineering. Instead of applying user empathy to the process of design, which carries with it baggage of translation, think empathic engineering, the melding of making and using in a single act. Wall Street Journal writer Thomas Petzinger tells the story of a company called Anadigics that put engineers in charge of selling. "Selling and engineering, in short, became indistinguishable" as "direct lines of communication emerge between once-autonomous techies and the world of potential customers that lay outside." Business guru Daniel Goldman of Emotional Intelligence fame tells the story of Ford getting engineers to spend a week with customers, instead of relying on market research and focus groups. The lesson for the engineers was to listen, and to forget about data.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think formal design research is unnecessary. In many cases, a trained researcher can spot things not obvious to the untrained observer, and the researcher can offer an fresh and outside perspective as well. But sometimes all that's needed is just a bit more communication between maker and user. The needs to be identified aren't mysterious, just not being heard by the people who need to act on them. If I'm not needed, that's fine too.

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