Three Quick Empathy Techniques – HTW Berlin 2022

People say we need empathy for design. But what does that mean? Here are three quick empathy techniques any designer can use right now.

Empathy helps us conduct better research, foster better teamwork, and build better software.

Three Quick Empathy Techniques

HTW Berlin – International Media Informatics
Pre-Recorded for 20 May 2022, 09:45 CEST


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The Creative Empathy Field Guide

The Creative Empathy Field Guide
The Creative Empathy Field Guide is available as an e-book or paperback.

Whether building a product or a business, The Creative Empathy Field Guide can help you infuse empathy to any creative process.


Good morning. Guten morgen, media informatics master students, hi!

It’s wonderful to be here this morning and I am going to introduce this very short video about creative empathy. And I’d like to start by inviting you to go ahead and close your eyes, and remember a time that you can think of when you felt truly empowered, in control, and really seen, and understood.

Let’s dwell on that memory for a moment. What was the scenario? And was it hot, cold, somewhere in between, is it daytime or nighttime? Are there are any sounds that you can remember, or smells even?

Reflect on those sensations for a moment, and then let’s go back to feeling itself, feeling truly empowered, as we close out this very short session with a breath, and now you can open your eyes. Thank you very much for that.

What we just did was an empathy technique called emotion memory, and I’m gonna speak about that a little more in a moment, but first I’d like to take some time to introduce myself, and bust a couple of empathy myths.

So my name’s Brian, great to meet you. I wrote a book called The Creative Empathy Field Guide, and today I’m going to give you three super super simple empathy techniques that any designer can use to build better software, foster better teamwork, and conduct better research. Okay?

Before I get into those techniques, I first wanna preface this by busting two common myths about empathy. The first is that empathy seems to feel like what would I do in the situation that someone else is in, walking in someone’s shoes.

That isn’t exactly accurate. What empathy is really about is what do I need, what I feel, like they’re feeling, so that I can give them that, right? It’s all about the emotional connection resonating with another person’s experiences on an emotional level.

That’s what empathy is really about. And the good news is that there’s another myth about empathy that just isn’t true. And that myth is that empathy is some kind of magic. You’re either born with it, or you’re not, and if you’re not born with it, then you can’t do it. That’s not true.

It’s great because empathy isn’t magic, it’s more like a muscle. Anyone can train it and develop it, and so that’s why I developed the Eindhoven empathy model, which shows that empathy is a function of our empathic ability, and our proximity to another person’s experience.

Let me just break it down for you really quickly, empathy is our resonance with another person’s experiences. Empathy is something we can, it’s a process that we can go through, and it’s also kind of state or something that can happen, an emergence of empathic resonance that can occur if the two factors of ability and proximity are present. Empathic ability is basically the strength of our empathy muscle. It’s how good we are at empathizing with other people, or other beings, I’ll say.

Proximity is how closely our experience resembles that of another person. So basically it’s much easier for anyone of us to empathize with another person who is very similar to ourselves. It’s familiar, it’s easier, our proximity is very high, but in a low proximity situation is when we are trying to empathize with someone whose experience is very different from our own, for whatever reason.

So last note on this particular model, I have visualized it here as a formula, because if ability or proximity are zero, if one of those two factors is not present, then empathy cannot happen. Okay? But the good part about that is, is that any lack of one can be made up for by boosting the other one.

So where this mostly happens is with folks that might not have a high empathic ability, we can increase their proximity to the persons or the people that they’re trying to empathize with through different proximity techniques like simulation, or conducting research like y’all are doing right now, and so that’s the good part about this. Empathy is about emotional connection, and it’s like a muscle, anyone can train and develop it.

So we’ve already been introduced to the first technique called emotion memory, this is actually something that I stole from acting, I’m also an actor, and this was invented by Konstantin Stanislavsky, a quite famous Russian acting director who is kind of the, let’s say ancestor of method acting and emotion memory is all about recalling an emotional state in oneself, so that we can use that emotional state to inform our responses or the way that we interact with the world.

So in a design perspective this can be good, if we want to understand how to design, let’s say a app or any kind of thing for someone who is in a specific emotional context or emotional state. If we can recall emotional states that are relevant to that in us, before we make design decisions, then our decisions become better informed, because we’ve been able to use our sensory memory to recall those emotions, and bring that emotional context back into our own minds.

This also works with people, if we are trying to work with a team member or there’s someone that we have a conversation with, or a relationship with, and whatever kind of relationship it is, if we want to better understand what that person needs, then it can help us to do a very quick emotion memory exercise within ourselves to recall that emotional state in ourselves so that we can better respond to the other person.

So it works on both a design level, and also an interpersonal team level. But sometimes emotion memory and recalling our own experiences isn’t enough. Sometimes we need more information from outside, and here’s where this can go wrong. Let’s look at this screen here.

So this screen is the no wifi or no internet error state from an app that I worked on a while back at Phillips, this was a self-help app for people with depression, and we wanted to make it a little bit more lighthearted, we wanted to add some personality to it, so we created this little space theme, and as part of the space theme, we had a kind of a space monkey who would be sort of the avatar of the app.

You know, if there were error messages, if there were things that would come from the app for people, then it would basically be shown as if it were the monkey kind of telling you this thing, just to make it a little bit lighthearted, and to give it kind of some humor and some personality.

What we didn’t anticipate, and I’m really glad that we double checked this first was that the test panelists that we were working with, so we actually worked together with a panel of people who have depression, who agreed to work together with us and give us feedback on our app.

Some folks saw this screen and got offended, because they assumed or they felt like we were calling them the monkey, and if you look at the actual illustration itself it does make sense because the monkey has a banana, in its hand, and that’s just like the person using the app with a phone in their hand, this was definitely a mistake on our part or it could have been a mistake, if we hadn’t caught it in time, which I’m super super glad we did.

Because that enabled us to actually make a different version where we still kept the space theme, and we kept the idea of an avatar, we just changed the avatar to be more generic, so it’s not a monkey, but just a generic kind of astronaut, and we also changed the UI copy to be a little bit less humorous, and a little bit more direct to the point and helpful, if that makes sense.

So what I’m talking about here, and the reason why we were able to catch this mistake on time was because we used a technique called active inquiry, ah, I don’t really want to call it a technique per se, it’s more like an underlying philosophy or a mindset that we can use lots of different techniques in order to achieve, or in order to facilitate.

But active inquiry is basically all about searching for answers, questioning things, to test our assumptions, just to make sure that what we think is true, is actually true. So for example, the space monkey thing I just showed you, that could have gone really badly, but at the same time, when working with other people, again in a team context, or in any kind of relationship context sometimes our gut is kind of telling us something about the other person or we get the impression that another person is feeling, thinking, or assuming a certain thing, and it’s best if we can articulate that assumption, and actually ask the other person if it’s accurate, and what that could look like, is something like, “I feel like you are something, something, something. “Is that accurate, or it seems to me like, “there’s something going on with you, am I right, “am I wrong, what’s going on, should we talk about it?”

And what that does is that it creates, it brings the underlying assumption to the surface, so it makes it explicit, and that allows us to talk about it in such a way that it doesn’t become a problem later on whenever we just assume something is true, and act on the false assumption, if that makes sense.

So technique number three, again, more of a mindset perhaps, but there are techniques that we can use to facilitate this, and it’s about safe spaces, creating safe spaces in specific.

And what this is all about is making fertile ground for psychological safety, psychological safety is the feeling that we have that we can say anything without fear, we can propose any idea, we can express any feeling or emotion, and psychological safety has been shown by lots of different researchers that in a team context, psychological safety was the most strong or strongest predictor of a team’s success, and creativity, and performance, especially in the long-term, but also in the short-term.

So for teams, this is really wonderful, especially if we’re conducting, let’s say ideation workshops with teammates, or if we’re trying to get things together about like brainstorming sessions or whatever, somehow creating a safe space, and agreeing with the team ahead of time before the ideation starts, that this area here is a safe space that we share, is a judgment-free zone, this frees people up and allows people the safety to be able to say ideas that might be stupid, or bad, or nonsensical, you know, sometimes ideas that might, that we might judge ourselves that might feel like they’re bad ideas.

Either they’re good ideas in disguise, or by expressing the bad idea in the group, it allows the group to kind of riff on that and come to a good idea, a better idea than if that idea wouldn’t have been said or stated in the session. So this is what it looks like in interpersonal sense, but we can also have in a work sense, let’s say, when for example conducting US research, if we’re doing interviews with a person, especially if we’re trying to understand a person’s emotional context, it’s also helpful to establish in the very beginning, a safe space with that person.

And the way that I like to establish safe spaces in one on one setting like an interview, for example, is just to say that this is a safe space, because as the interviewer you are kind of the authority figure, you have the power in that sense to establish and to create that safe space and tell the interviewee, this is a safe place, you can say anything you want here, you will never be judged, I’m not gonna laugh at you, and it’s all about getting the truth and your authentic reality out here. In a team or in a workshop setting, I’d like to do this more as an agreement.

I propose that we create together a safe space, where we don’t judge each other, we don’t laugh at each other, or we accept each other’s truths, and we build on each other’s ideas rather than shutting them down, and I allow people in the group to opt in or opt out.

Up to now having done workshops where I create safe spaces with groups of people, having done that for almost 10 years now, I can say that I’ve never had anyone opt out of this. We all really love having a safe space, especially when it gives us the freedom to be more creative, and to bring our authentic selves to work. Okay?

All right. That was it. Vielen dank!

Thank you very much, today we talked about three empathy techniques: emotion memory, active inquiry, and creating safe spaces. And we also talked about two insights about empathy itself, busting myths, basically saying that empathy is about emotional connection, what do I need when I’m feeling the way that the other person’s feeling, and it’s also not magic, it’s more like a muscle, everyone can learn, and develop empathy.

So if you’d like to see this video or learn some more, download some stuff, or see some references, you can go to the or scan the QR code on the screen here.

And if you have any direct questions, or if you’d like me to respond to anything that you might have any concerns or any questions for your own project, just talk to Andreas, and he will send questions through to me, and I will respond to them.

So thanks again and have a wonderful day, I really appreciate your attention and your time.