Illustration originally for Eye on Design magazine, Worth issue, by Célestin Krier.

On a Monday afternoon in late fall of 2018, a group of 30 or so adults in various interpretations of business-casual sat in neat rows of chairs facing a projector screen with the words “Applied Empathy” written across it. They had arrived minutes earlier, lanyards in tow, at the spacious West Village event room of Sub Rosa, a creative marketing agency whose clients include Pepsi, General Electric, and Nike, for a workshop on how to bring more empathy into their work. 

At the front of the room, Sub Rosa’s founder and CEO, Michael Ventura, stood before the glowing screen. Tall with long dark hair, a beard, and fashionably casual clothes, he exuded a kind of urban shaman vibe. As one of the Fast Track sessions at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, the 90-minute workshop promised to introduce attendees to Sub Rosa’s Applied Empathy methodology, a corporate leadership approach designed to “drive internal cultural change, build better products, and connect [businesses] more deeply with [their] audiences.” Ventura authored a book titled Applied Empathy and designed an Applied Empathy card game called Questions & Empathy that he describes as “a highbrow Cards Against Humanity—it escalates you from small talk to big talk ultra fast.” 

 

Questions & Empathy cards.

Ventura started the session with a vocabulary lesson. “I’ll begin by asking a fairly obvious question that we often ask ourselves: Why empathy?” he said, as attendees dug through their bags for a pen to take notes. Empathy, he continued, is a chronically misunderstood term, particularly in the business world. “People think empathy is about being nice, being compassionate, being sympathetic—it’s none of those things,” he said. At Sub Rosa, he explained, empathy has a broader meaning that extends well beyond its dictionary definition of “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

“We say empathy is self-aware perspective-taking to gain richer, deeper understanding,” he said. And all the niceties he mentioned before? Those are simply the side effects of being a more empathetic person. For companies like Sub Rosa that position themselves as design-centric problem solvers, developing a deeper understanding of their clients—or of their clients’ clients—has very real economic benefits. It can lead to more impactful campaigns and more memorable brand activations. It can produce more useful products and solve overlooked needs. 

We say empathy is self-aware perspective-taking to gain richer, deeper understanding.

According to an organization called The Empathy Business, empathy is a quantifiable metric. In 2015 and 2016, the UK company released an Empathy Index, which ranked the top 100 companies based on an analysis of corporate culture, ethics, leadership performance, social media presence, and brand perception. Businesses can be good or bad at empathy, but the company argues that those who build an empathetic culture can see real economic benefits (Facebook ranked first in 2016, so take from the index what you will). “The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings,” Belinda Parmar, founder of The Empathy Business wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2016. Another online report from the human resources startup Businesssolver found that in 2019, 91 percent of CEOs surveyed said they believe a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace, adding that empathy can motivate employees and improve productivity. 

Questions & Empathy cards.

The idea that soft skills can net hard numbers was boardroom catnip for many of the attendees, who were sent to the workshop on behalf of big companies like Microsoft, Kelloggs, and L’Oréal. Unlike other corporate self-improvement initiatives that have the scent of snakeoil, empathy has a hard-to-hate charm. What monster doesn’t believe having more empathy in business is a good thing?

But getting to the point where teams operate in truly empathetic ways takes work, Ventura reminded the crowd. Empathy is like a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it, it will atrophy into self-involved mush. The workshop—and the Applied Empathy methodology in general—is a first step toward recognizing your own biases and ultimately making better products and solutions for your clients. “When you get into the shoes of someone else, you’re able to really see something from their eyes and use that to inform the decision-making and the problem-solving you’re doing,” Ventura continued. “Does that make sense? Cool.”

*

Turn on the news. Scroll through Twitter. Click on a stream of seemingly endless news stories with headlines like “How to Use Empathy to Get You What You Want” and “Discover Your Biggest Business Advantage—Empathy.”  In 2019, the drumbeat of “more empathy” is hard to escape. The term has become a cure-all salve for a time of deep divisiveness. If we’re to believe the news, it’s the stitching that can unite opposite sides of the political aisle. It’s the key to making technology less toxic and addictive. It’s the secret ingredient to ensuring your design is truly “human-centered.” It’s also a hot commodity. 

The empathy economy is booming, and understandably so. Empathy is, in theory, the perfect antidote to the anger, tension, and world-weariness that so many people currently feel. The logical thinking goes: If everyone put themselves in another person’s shoes, they’d be able to see things differently. It’s a sentiment that, inevitably, people have learned how to profit from—perhaps nowhere more than in the design world where the concept of “user-centered design” has become the default methodology. 

Right now you can go on Amazon and buy dozens of books that teach you how to use empathy as a leadership and marketing tool, and at least one that tells you empathy is total bullshit. You can hire a coach who will teach you how to be more empathetic or sign up for an online empathy skills training course that promises to teach you tips and tricks for imbuing your emails, body language, and verbal delivery with a sense of compassion.  

Empathy is, in theory, the perfect antidote to the anger, tension, and world-weariness that so many people currently feel.

But the rise of the empathy economy isn’t a bulletproof path to hugs and happiness. With empathy’s rapid ascent into the communal medicine cabinet, there are new questions to consider, like: What happens when empathy becomes a marketable skill? Will its meaning become diluted as its worth ascends? And is empathy something you can learn—let alone buy?

Apparently it is. A few weeks after the Sub Rosa workshop, I found myself on the phone with Whitney Hess, an executive coach in New York City who offers coaching for individuals and businesses who are feeling stuck, adrift, unhappy, or some combination of the three. I found Hess by googling “empathy coach,” but she’s just one of a whole page of results advertising motivational language and corporate problem-solving advice. In the current climate, empathy is reliably a marketable—and thus SEO-able—term. 

For the better part of a decade, Hess has owned her eponymous consultancy, which boasts the tagline “Improving the human experience one say at a time.” Hess’ website tells me that she is a Myers-Briggs ENFJ (The Protagonist, The Teacher, The Giver) and that her conflict style is Accomodating (“you win, I lose”). Her services, which include things like “management coaching,” “facilitation and mediation,” and “narrative shifts,” make me feel like she’ll be able to guide me to a higher moral truth and help me make more money while I’m at it. 

Hess told me her coaching sessions are designed to peel back the layers of hardness and rationality that prevent people from confronting the emotional roadblocks and blind spots that can make it harder to truly connect with people. Most clients pay Hess for a package of sessions, but there’s also a pay-what-you-wish form on her website where people can decide on their own fee. The average payment for an hour-long session is $169. 

Hess is a former user experience designer who spent her early career wire-framing apps and websites at digital agencies before she quit to make a go of it as an independent consultant. She says many UX designers and researchers are natural empaths who’ve found themselves in a position where their sensitive attunement to human nature is funneled toward a business goal. “I see all of user experience as being an empathy practice,” she said. “There’s a particular set of goals that we’re trying to achieve that are ultimately for the businesses’ benefit, but the vantage point of a user experience practitioner is, ‘How can I find the intersection between what the business wants and what the user needs?’”

UX research is predicated on uncovering gems of insight found only by gaining access to a user’s mind and emotions. To understand another person—better yet, to empathize with them—is to be able to make something they want and maybe even need. But for Hess, empathy isn’t just getting to the point where you can imagine where another person is coming from, it’s feeling where another person is coming from. “Empathy is actually a relatively new word in the English language,” she explained in her slow, deliberate cadence. “It comes from a German word that I’m going to butcher if I try to pronounce it, but the literal definition of it is ‘to feel into.’ I see ‘to feel into’ as being very different than ‘to feel for’ or ‘to understand.’”

I see all of user experience as being an empathy practice.

That’s the main problem with empathy and design, Hess conceded. Lots of designers get caught up in the idea that empathy is merely understanding another person’s perspective. They approach empathy as another step in a user-centric design process or as a mental puzzle to solve rather than an emotional state to tap into. “I sometimes worry that in the field of design, when we talk about empathy, we really mean cognitive empathy,” she said. 

Empathy coaching is, in part, a way to strip away any notion that empathy is an item on a checklist or best practice in the design process. Hess is insistent that before people can practice empathy in their work, they must practice empathy with themselves, which tends to be a long and messy process. When I told her that empathy coaching sounds a lot like therapy, she quickly corrected my choice of words. “It’s not therapy. It’s not anything else—it’s coaching,” she said. “The work that I do with my clients is not explicitly about empathy. What I’m really doing with my clients is helping them to better understand their own feelings and needs. Because when we’re not self-connected, we are much less capable of connecting with others.”

*

“Connecting with others” has always been the lofty promise of empathy. It explains why many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are so enamored with the word, and why some of them have turned empathy into a formal practice. In a blissfully naïve interview with Freakonomics Radio in 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opined on his company’s power to make people more empathetic by showing them what they share.

“First you connect over something that you have in common. So you recognize that the other person is a person,” Zuckerberg told the host. “But then they go connect over other things, and they debate other things, and they find that, ‘Hey, we agree on other things; we disagree on them; but now we can have productive and empathetic discussions, because we’re all people, and we recognize our common humanity.’”

It would be an admirable sentiment if it wasn’t mere sugar-coating. For companies like Facebook, empathy is often used as shorthand for “hyper-personalization.” As the world becomes more complex and divided, knowing how factions of users want to experience its platform is not just good for business—it’s essential to the company’s survival. In 2015, Facebook launched its Empathy Lab as an effort to make its products and services more attuned to users with special needs; people with disabilities or those living in underdeveloped countries. Though it’s hard to argue with Facebook’s desire to make its products more useful and accessible, the effort highlights the inherent tensions in connecting empathy and business: More thoughtful products are important, as long as they attract more users.

Danielle Krettek is used to navigating the contradictions of the technology world. When she joined Google, she came to the notoriously engineering-led company with a radical idea. Having spent her earlier career working as a designer and researcher at Nike and Apple, she’d noticed how technology—despite its makers’ best intentions—often ignored users’ emotional well-being in return for efficiency and functionality. At Google, she wanted to bring an element of humanity to the company’s products.

 “I was seeing how technology ignores this whole emotional layer of our human experience,” she told me over the phone from her office in Mountain View, California. “I’ve noticed that the intuitive interaction of multitouch and the appverse has led to very simple, very light, and deeply functionally-led experiences. And the thing that’s glaringly missing for me is all of the emotional experience. Now that technology is wall-to-wall and in every nook and cranny of our lives, it’s just radically insufficient.” 

A few years ago, Krettek started Google’s Empathy Lab, a multidisciplinary team that works mostly within the company’s AI and Machine Learning team, but also acts as a roving research group that advocates for users’ emotional well-being across various product teams. Krettek safeguards specifics around the kinds of projects the Empathy Lab works on, but right now most of her lab’s resources go toward helping machine learning engineers “build humanity” into their training models and algorithms for voice assistants. “We work in a group of 600 or 700 people doing lots of different things, and what I tend to do is kind of be the human inspiration,” she explained. 

That companies like Google are willing to throw money at building products with an emotional conscience is, on one hand, an admission of what’s been sorely lacking in all of our habit-forming, thumb-swiping interactions with tech products for the past decade. But it’s also a reaction to the way technology itself is changing. As apps become more personalized and predictive, and voice assistants more pervasive, Krettek’s work is a small but important effort that will help technology slide even more seamlessly into every aspect of our lives.

Other big tech companies have begun to catch on, too. Nokia Bell Labs, the research center famous for inventing the transistor, has spent the last couple of years investing time and money in developing wearable technology that will help people communicate more empathically. Marcus Weldon, Bell Labs’ president, believes that most of the world’s problems are solvable by facilitating a deeper connection than what’s currently possible with phones and computers. 

The intuitive interaction of multitouch and the appverse has led to very simple, very light, and deeply functionally-led experiences. And the thing that’s glaringly missing for me is all of the emotional experience.

“We’ve become isolated in little silos of existence,” he told me for a story I previously reported for Wired magazine about the company. “What’s lacking is state transfer between individuals so you can actually feel how they feel.” Bell Labs’ solution, called The Sleeve, is like a souped-up Apple Watch that’s able to measure biometric data like heart rate and perspiration, then translate that information into more emotionally rich messages communicated through haptic feedback. Eventually, this form of “sixth sense” technology could be embedded into more of our devices, layering the world with a heightened sense of emotion. 

We’re already seeing that happen in some form, on a much smaller scale. For Krettek’s part, she’s spent the last couple of years with Google Assistant’s personality team, which is responsible for imbuing a sense of humanness in products like Google Home or Google Assistant. Krettek describes herself as helping engineers, product managers, writers, and scientists to better understand the nuances of human sentiment, which can make the difference between a technology product sounding creepy or comforting. The way she sees it, technology is unavoidable for most people, and it’s only going to become more intimately embedded in our lives. The defining challenges of contemporary UX design is to ensure that people interact with technology in a way that feels natural (if not quite yet human), and that technology interacts with people in a way that feels respectful of their time, emotions, and privacy. “I think we’re moving into a new wave for a new era, where it’s actually about ‘design feeling’ instead of ‘design thinking,’” she said.

*

Krettek’s idealism is echoed by many of empathy’s biggest advocates, who say the word’s sudden preponderance is inherently good. “In my view, if empathy becomes more ubiquitous, that’s probably not going to be a bad thing for anybody,” Sub Rosa’s Ventura said.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that a more empathetic world could solve some of the problems caused by blind self-interest. But practicing personal empathy is different from selling it as a marketing tool that can be learned and honed for the betterment of the bottom line. In the last few years, empathy has garnered some vocal opponents in the design world, who argue the concept is self-serving, narrow-minded, and used as a crutch in the design process. These failures can lead to designing products that solve only a small subset of users’ issues and ignore the wider implications of designing with empathy. 

“We should think of ourselves as empathetic people within an empathetic practice,” said design consultant Thomas Wendt, who wrote a piece for the ethnography website EPIC titled “Empathy as Faux Ethics.” “But I don’t know—for me, that’s as far as it goes. Anything beyond that becomes sort of a commodification of empathy, which feels very counterintuitive and frankly, just kind of icky.”

Even outside of the design world, the selling of empathy as a silver bullet solution runs the risk of neutering its power. Wendt takes particular issue with the contradiction of for-profit companies using empathy as a means for making more money. “It’s weird right?” he said. “It’s taking one of the most inherent human qualities we have and putting a price tag on it.” 

Ask proponents of empathy like Ventura, Krettek, and Hess, and they’ll acknowledge empathy isn’t foolproof. Companies can “empathy-wash” their message in the same way some “greenwash” their marketing to look more environmentally friendly. Empathy can be misused for narrow or short-sighted goals, and at its worst, can even be manipulated for malevolent purposes. Ventura brings up the point that, by his own definition, Cambridge Analytica’s mining and analysis of Facebook data to influence the 2016 elections could be considered empathetic. “It was nefarious, but at its core it was a deep understanding of these particular people. There was a lot of empathy in their behavior.” 

The greatest risk of empathy-washing is likely just a classic case of user fatigue. Like other well-intentioned words and phrases that are absorbed by the business leadership machine, empathy runs the risk of losing its value the more it’s plastered across book covers and headlines. Marketing empathy’s pristine altruism has the unintended effect of diluting its power. 

*

Back at the workshop, Ventura instructed the crowd to split off into pairs of strangers. Each attendee was armed with two tarot-style cards printed with probing questions like “What questions make you most uncomfortable?” or “What motivates you to progress?” Ventura set a timer for 10 minutes, and the room lit up with quiet conversations that cumulatively produced an echoing boom. 

The woman I was partnered with told me that her marketing team at a global consumer brand had been having trouble communicating. People were stressed and stretched too thin. There was no time for taking stock of her team’s mental health. She said she wanted to be able to apply the same level of care and empathy she feels in her personal life to her work life—and that it was, frankly, really hard. 

The conversation felt a little weird and forced, but it also worked. Despite knowing only her first name, I felt like I learned more about her outlook on work than I’ve learned about many of my friends. 

“It’s really beautiful to see a room shift like that,” Ventura said at the end of the exercise. When it works, he continued, empathy can get people to open up—even with perfect strangers.

“Quick show of hands,” he said, ready to prove his point. “How many of you have these kinds of conversations with your colleagues?” 

No one raised their hand.

This story originally ran in the Worth issue of Eye on Design magazine. It’s also part of an ongoing series about UX design in partnership with Adobe XD, the collaboration platform that helps teams create designs for websites, mobile apps, and more.