How do we get from "Empathy" to "Define"?

In Learning Design.Design Learning by Zaza

The year 2016 began on bright and exciting note as we unpacked boxes and started to get settled in our new home at Capen Annex.

Now, a month later, we’re still setting up shop but at least the spring course IDP 316 [Critical] Design Thinking Studio is well underway. On Monday, the 13 students in IDP 316 will demo their first ever design thinking projects — their first deep dive into the design thinking process!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before demo day there is a load of work to do – and most of it involves getting into an appropriate mode of thinking, listening, and doing. Call it a “frame of mind” or a mindset if you will. For the familiar reader, this language of mindsets will evoke Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets; or Shelley Goldman’s description of design thinking as the ability to mindshift to embracing more collaborative, experimental, human-centered and metacognitive (or strategic) ways of working. In short, it’s about your attitude.

The goal of IDP 316 is for students to become comfortable with and adept at making those mindshifts. Our first lap at this was a 4-day class exercise in shifting from empathy to defining problems, the first and second modes of design thinking. Students worked in groups of 3 or 4, to make a story about what Safety really means. Not to “tell” a story, to “make” a story about safety.

Here’s a summary of the exercise:

Design thinking is the gift of listening

Design thinking is an imperative for putting human needs at the center of creative process.

“Design thinking is like putting on putting on a coat.”
This coat allows you to start to playing the role of empathetic maker of new stories.

Students build graphics, scripts, storyboards, or props that could be used to community what safety means to someone.

safety for

One member of each student group volunteers to tell a story about safety. Their teammates are to listen, ask questions, elicit stories and memories about the last time they felt unsafe.

  • Find out about their experience(s)
  • What social meaning can be drawn from the event(s) described?
  • How is safety portrayed?
  • Identify rituals that were maintained or broken in the safe/unsafe event.
  • What are the needs of each person in the stories told?
Before you try to fix things, understand them first! Students unpack facts, inferences, and assumptions from their interview. They build an empathy map, and translate what was said, done, thought and felt from the interview into a new story about safety. They consciously take on an explicit point of view. And then they generate as many ideas as they can about it. Wild ideas flourish in a judgement free space.

Students refine their point of view, expressing it in a condensed sentence. These sentences tell new stories about safety from authentic points of view. These sentences can express the point of view of a city, a college, or clearly articulated individuals with full lives.
A teenager

A sure-footed, self-assured teenage girl had her personal space invaded when someone robbed her – she needs to restore her faith in humanity.

The City

A city that is trying to nurture the character of its people needs a way to ensure safety without losing its grit because sometimes uncertainty can be productive.

Their Identity

Someone with a strong sense of identity needs to express themself without fear of questioning or violence

Elite Colleges

A long-standing educational institution needs to reconcile its “elite” image with the needs of a student body it didn’t intend to serve because in promoting its image, it tokenizes and fails to support marginalized groups.

Design thinking is the gift of listening. During those 4 days, students were listening actively and compassionately. Design thinking is like a coat or a hat you deliberately put. With this coat or hat on, you start to play a role–the role of empathetic maker of new stories.

Brené Brown has an evocative RSA Short on the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy allows you to imagine how someone else sees an experience. As an approach to critiquing or questioning the status quo, empathy is incredibly instructive. Most importantly, empathy is superbly generative when it is used as a lens through which you can see a question afresh. These different ways of seeing questions translate to points of view (POVs) that a designer can take to remake, reframe, and reimagine.