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Cheap Tricks: the Role of Empathy in Communicating Research

Empathy is nothing if not topical.

From Barack Obama’s famous description of the United States’ ‘empathy deficit’ to the titles of nonfiction best sellers (e.g. Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy and Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy) and new tech products (see https://www.empathybroker.com/), the concept of empathy seems to have captured the collective imagination. And user research is no exception.

The role of empathy in user research is a topic of much debate at the moment (see the list of references at the end of this article for some examples). Some of us feel that it is powerful but misunderstood; others are exasperated by its widespread misuse. Vivianne Castillo captures this exasperation in her article about shame and transference in user research:

I can’t help but feel the subtle onset of nausea and an uncontrollable eye twitch whenever I hear the tech community mention the E-Word --- yes empathy. I fear that empathy has become a cheap cliche that we sprinkle in our resumes, conversations, portfolios and job descriptions. (VC)

Empathy is everywhere. A handy catch-all for being compassionate, sensitive and yet analytical. It doesn’t have a fixed definition, which probably contributes to its popularity, lending itself to disparate interpretations. But as it leaks out of the realms of philosophy and psychology into corporate jargon, it’s taken on an industrial-scale cheapness. And because of its perennial availability, it is seen to have lost a lot of its truth and meaning.

I am not interested in defining what that truth and meaning is – or at least I’m not interested in doing that here. I am instead interested in pointing out that there is an industry-wide preoccupation with empathy at the same time as an industry-wide preoccupation with the idea that empathy has lost its authenticity.

The issue of inauthentic empathy primarily concerns itself with the list of all the important insight we miss when we take empathy for granted, including the shame and transference that Castillo discusses in her article. I think there is another side to this issue that needs to be unpacked: that empathy has been cheapened by and for the tech community. Has it been cheapened solely by the fact that it is used in the service of commerce? Weakened by the relentless skimming of business inefficiencies? Or is it that when empathy is used for practical means, it’s only useful in its most simplified and simplistic form?

In order to examine this second issue we need to make the distinction between empathy in two core elements of the user researcher’s job:

Empathy is aligning yourself with the experiences of another person. This has consequences. Firstly, it is hard to do. Both in aligning yourself with experiences that you may never have had and in the cognitive effort to hold that state. (AS)

Authentic empathy is the work of the researcher doing research and it is not easy, nor does it happen entirely organically. It requires cognitive effort. The proliferation of cheap empathy, however, transforms it into a naturally occurring phenomenon; it is a trait endowed by nature and not by hard work. So now, as if it were a question of whether she is right-handed or not, the user researcher is either empathetic or not. This facile, unearned manifestation of empathy has no place within the research itself, because this form of empathy doesn’t require the labour to maintain the separation between your experiences and the ‘experiences that you may never have had.’

But what about the researcher communicating research? In this context, a cheaper version of empathy has become useful. As essayist Leslie Jamison writes in her book The Empathy Exams:

Even melodrama can carry someone across the gulf between his life and the lives of others. A terrible TV movie about addiction can still make someone feel for the addict – no matter how general this addict, how archetypal or paradigmatic, no matter how trite the plot twists, how shameful the puppetry of heart strings. (LJ, p.127)

Jamison goes so far as to say that cliché can get the job done. It may be contrived, but through its own contrived nature, it’s an effective and easily travelled path to empathy.

As user researchers, or design researchers, we help clear those paths, and lead stakeholders down them in order to help them make better decisions. And if an archetype or paradigm or cliché makes their journey down that path easier, then is that not a more effective result?

I don’t mean to suggest here that authentic empathy has no value – I hope to write more about the role of authentic empathy, its morphology, and how important that is to the usefulness of research in future articles. However, by the very existence of cliché, is it not important to raise the question of the usefulness of cheap empathy as well?



Castillo, Vivianne: “Ethics & Power: Understanding the Role of Shame in UX Research.” https://uxdesign.cc/ethics-power-understanding-the-role-of-shame-in-ux-research-dafc08bd1d66 (VC)

Mannan, Hareem: “The Hidden Privilege in Design.” https://medium.com/s/user-friendly/the-hidden-privilege-in-design-415072d8a66

Somerville, Alastair: “On Listening and the dangers of Empathy.” https://medium.com/@acuity_design/on-listening-and-the-dangers-of-empathy-6375ce910d68 (AS)


Bloom, Paul: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2016.

Jamison, Leslie: The Empathy Exams: Essays. Granta, 2014 (LJ)

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