The Critical Role of Empathy in Designing … Anything!

Feb 17, 2014 by

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.37.51 PMAs we seek to build more connected congregations, there is nothing more critical than understanding the feelings and considerations of those with whom we are trying to connect.  Only when we can appreciate the needs, logistics, perspective and emotions of another can we effectively create the opportunities to engage and connect. In our full day Design Thinking workshop this pilot group dove deeply into understanding empathy, and the structured process developed by IDEO, an international design firm based in Silicon Valley helps design products, services, environments, and digital experiences such as the computer mouse, toothpaste tubes, medical devices, and, yes, shopping carts.  Ideo freely shares the process so others may learn from it, as we are doing in Connected Congregations.

IDEO’s process of designing around empathy has a number of steps which can be applied to congregational work as well. A few highlights include:

  • Develop diverse design teams, to draw from experience, training, expertise and perspective.  How diverse are your board and committees?  Are they encouraged to bring their full perspective, or conform to an established approach and culture?
  • Clarify the problem you’re trying to solve.  Are you thinking in constricted ways about the real issue at hand?  Empathize with the audience you’re trying to serve.  Truly.  Deeply.  This is harder than you think.  It requires putting aside your own attachments and emotions.
  • Research the issue.  Get outside your own assumptions to learn what real people on the ground are thinking, doing, wanting.  Who are the real “users” or “participants” and how can you get honest input from them that can influence your design?  Interview, discuss, listen carefully, observe.
  • Ideate! Sketch out multiple ways to address the issue to play with the variables at hand.  You may surprise yourself!  Then, get feedback on the ideas.  What resonates, what doesn’t?
  • Prototype!  Combine the elements that resonated into a prototype for the solution.  Before you invest a ton of time and energy, work up quick examples as straw models to react to and learn from.
  • And then, of course, measure, test, and refine.

Check out this process of the IDEO team redesigning a shopping cart in this ABC Nightlight segment.  Using something as common and basic as a shopping cart is a great illustration of how the process works, and the value of employing empathy in your work.

Where do you (or could you) use empathy in your congregational leadership?  Share your stories in the comments.


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