Empathy, Or Em...Pity?

Can you walk in another's shoes with your own feet?

In March 2018, upon invitation through a LinkedIn message, I attended a seminar entitled “Human-Centered Technology: The Human/Tech Paradox” in New York City. The keynote speaker was Concepción Galdón, PhD, Social Innovation Director/Academic Lead at IE (Instituto de Empresa) University in Spain.

Having done some wearable technology projects myself while studying industrial design at the Academy or Art University in San Francisco, the title alone intrigued me.

I expected a lecture in a large auditorium. Instead, I was ushered up to the 48th floor in a new skyscraper in the Hudson Yards neighborhood.

The seminar started in an SAP workspace, which reminded me more of my first-grade classroom than a corporate office, with a division of attendees into groups of five for discussion.

After a brief introduction from the seminar organizers, Dr. Galdón began her presentation. But it was not a conventional presentation during which she spoke and we sat and listened. She encouraged our participation and thoughts throughout the presentation.

As reflected in the seminar title, the goal was to rethink human-centered technology, placing more emphasis on the human, and less emphasis on the technology. Each group was tasked with conceiving a product for a character known in one of our professional or personal lives, thinking about how we could use technology to solve his or her challenges. Our group focused on the challenges of an older employee in a tech startup working with millennial coworkers, and how he bridges the generational gap in terms of tech knowledge and usage, as well as language. Our group, and others, suggested smartphone apps with quick reference at the fingertips.

As an amateur linguist and etymologist, the pivotal point of the lecture for me was when Dr. Galdón challenged us on our understanding of the word “empathy.”

Our conventional definition is “the act of putting yourself in another’s shoes.” But this is only part of the effort.

When you put “yourself” in someone else’s shoes, it is “you, yourself” walking in someone else’s shoes. “You, yourself,” with your own thoughts, your own outlook, and your own life experiences, applied to someone else’s life journey. This approach can be somewhat condescending to the person with whom you are attempting to empathize.

Upon news of the death of world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), actor Gal Gadot, notable recently for portraying comic book superhero Wonder Woman on the movie screen, posted a tribute on Twitter:

“Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you’re free of any physical constraints.. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever.”

This seems like a moving tribute, but her view of Stephen Hawking as having physical constraints offended special-needs advocates. Gadot was attempting to empathize with Hawking, but was merely putting herself in his shoes, with her own thoughts, outlook, and life experience. Having served two years in the Israeli army, been an avid motorcyclist, and done all of her own stunts in her movies, Gadot has used her physical faculties to the fullest, and in Hawking’s shoes, would feel constrained until death. This is what she was projecting.

In reality, Stephen Hawking himself said that having ALS did not make him feel constrained, but motivated him to complete his PhD sooner than he would have otherwise.

To truly empathize with someone, Dr. Galdón suggests we do more than just walk in their shoes. We should try to learn and internalize their thoughts, outlook, and life experience through storyboards of a day in their lives, which I drew for my group, surveys, and any other method. Our own thoughts should come in the form of our specialized knowledge to solve these and other problems.

Another topic which arose during this seminar was assisting people with autism.

I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum as an adult. From what I have observed among people who are not autistic or neurotypical: it is a great challenge to empathize with those on the autism spectrum. It is particularly difficult to emphasize with an individual at the high-functioning end of the spectrum who may be seen by a neurotypical individual as “perfectly normal,” but “with a few behavioral quirks,” which could be coached away. However, these social quirks can go much deeper than what is observed on the surface, as autism is a difference in neurology, not just a difference in observable behavior.

Whatever a person’s challenge is, are product designers, in the broadest sense of the title, making life better for their target users, or for themselves?

Some examples shown to us of the human-centered approach to creating technology, were an instant language translator in the form of an earbud, and a smartphone consisting of a watch which transmitted sound to the ear from vibrations in the bones of the forearm through the fingers to the skull. We see the human first, not the machine, in both form and function, which will affect how we see each other in the future. 

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Empathy, Or Em...Pity?
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