Damian Bradfield, President and CMO of WeTransfer, explores how empathy can help to understand the ramifications of and reactions to technology across the world. He describes how inhabiting the experience of others in an imaginative way can lead to better product design and better understanding of needs and experience of others. Thank you to Damian for this thoughtful article, written exclusively for Imagination Matters.
Empathy gets tossed around a lot. People talk about it like it’s a process. It’s actually an outcome. It’s a place you reach.
You can’t just walk into a meeting room and say, in a loud voice, ‘Right. Now I’m going to strategically empathize with you all for the next fifteen minutes. I’ve got a meeting in twenty. Let’s just get some really top-grade empathy going. Fast.’
Empathy: not a popular question
The ability to understand and share the feelings of others was to be avoided at all costs
There’s a reason why empathy hasn’t been a popular term in the world of business for years — maybe centuries. In the industrial revolution, factory owners didn’t necessarily stop by each weaver’s loom to ask how it was going. How does it feel to receive mild burns, or severe arm and leg injuries, or limb amputation from the surrounding machinery? How does it feel — really feel — to breathe the air of this brick factory? Not a popular question. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others was to be avoided at all costs.
Inhabiting the experience of the other
Now, we want empathy. And for good reason. A lot of us are making products people like us use — the concept of the ‘other’ is not useful. (Though we haven’t progressed too far. We still seem to refrain from empathizing with the factory workers making our smartphones and computers, but that’s an issue for another day.) If we make programs, apps, software, systems for people, we want to do what product designers like Patricia Moore have done for years: inhabit the experience of the other.
…this can’t be done forcefully, in the manner of a top-down manager. Empathy needs imagination
If we want to understand the cultural ramifications of tech across the country and the world, not just in the affluent pockets of SF and NY, we have to inhabit the experience of the other. And, like I described in the section above, this can’t be done forcefully, in the manner of a top-down manager. Empathy needs imagination.
A recent storytelling experiment pioneered by the novelist Colum McCann centres around storytelling. Students are asked to interview one another. Then they tell the story of the other to the assembled class in the first person. They become the other person, recount details from their lives, live in their emotions for a while. The result has been unsurprisingly positive. It’s a simple act of imaginative transformation. One person becomes another. In that act, empathy forms.