On Empathy

Photo: Dan Terpstra (http://www.terpstraphoto.com/)
Speaking at PechaKucha Grand Rapids. (Photo: Dan Terpstra, http://www.terpstraphoto.com/)

I recently gave two talks at two very different conferences. One was a pecha kucha (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide) at the Midwest UX conference [video], and the other was a TED-style talk for The Summit youth ministry conference [video available for purchase].

Even though the audiences were very different, both talks ended up revolving around design and empathy.

And building those presentations was hard, scary work. I bounced drafts past friends and colleagues. After a late-night run-through with another designer (only two days before The Summit), I ended up rewriting almost the whole thing. I knew I was onto something important, but I was really nervous to give the talks.

Because I don’t feel like an expert on empathy. Or design. Because I still have a lot more to learn about ministry and theology.

Because I don’t like feeling vulnerable.

I procrastinated. I rehearsed. I downplayed what I was going to talk about. I wrote out notes because I didn’t trust myself to remember. And when the time came, I still stepped in front of the screen–half because I thought I had something worth sharing, and half because I was beyond the point of being able to back out! And I shared stories about a number of people I’ve met over the last year through design projects at AC4D and sparkhouse. Listening to and empathizing with them…and being changed in the process.

That’s what I know most about empathy.

Empathy changes power dynamics. As a designer, the stuff I make impacts what other people do–and in the world of ministry, it can even change what others believe. I have a disproportionate amount of power. But practicing human-centered design and embracing empathy shifts the power from me creating stuff for others to us making things together.

And empathy isn’t just a tool I pick up and use to understand and learn about others. Done right, empathy changes me too. It makes me accountable to others. Vulnerable.

But I wouldn’t go back to living primarily in my head, which feels more comfortable to me. No, because empathy is integral to my life as a designer. And as a person.

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