This year at Smith in the City – Boston, we led over 60 Smith alumnae from the Greater Boston Area in a design thinking workshop that focused on putting empathy into action. Our invitation to the workshop called for participants to immerse themselves in the experiences of others as a means of gaining fresh perspective on their own creative process. The session involved a hands-on opportunity to observe and engage with someone else in order to explore the role that empathy plays in being creative.
There was immense excitement in the room as Smithies from the Class of 1955 all the way to the Class of 2017 worked together in teams. Working in teams of 3 to 5, they tackled a two-part mini-challenge: 1) Get to know someone in your team by asking them about their morning routine. This was the empathy component. 2) Design an ad that communicates to others deep insights about who your teammate is. This was the creative component. The ads, which combined the empathy and creativity components, could be anything from physical objects to visual representations to catchy slogans tweeted with @SmithiesDesign.
During the post-workshop discussion Smithies shared some of the insights they had arrived at by leading with empathy. One team described how their teammate’s aspirations to be a leader in Washington D.C. translated to a very busy morning routine which involves skipping breakfast and having her first meal much later in the morning. “Every morning as she goes about the routine that is most natural to her, she has a nagging sense of failure because she’s not eating breakfast in a way that is generally accepted as wholesome.” To this, Smithies in the audiences offered affirmation, “Routine isn’t bad when you live the life you love!” The team’s ad evoked a conversation about the tensions between what is perceived as “normal” and being authentic to yourself—tensions that extend beyond the morning experience and breakfast routine.
Putting “empathy into action” in design thinking means switching your frame of reference to contextualize how someone else experiences and makes sense of a given situation. It is more about learning to see their experience respectfully, optimistically, without judgment, and with the curiosity of a beginner.
The prompt to design from a position of empathy meant the teams were asking deeper questions about what breakfast and the morning experience is:
What does breakfast mean to your teammate?
What was her morning experience? (Today/Yesterday)
How is breakfast portrayed when she tells you her story?
What rituals are reflected or broken in her routine?
What social meaning can we draw from them?
What are her needs?
Sit down for a 15-minute conversation on a focused topic. Pick someone whose frame of reference you’d like to understand. To elicit stories, ask them the following questions in any order: