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Why Empathy Matters More Than Ever: A Human-Centered Design Perspective on COVID-19

“Every problem is a human problem.”

It’s true. No matter how much a problem appears to be about a virus, a new technology, or a glitch in the system, at its root every challenge we face is a human problem. Human-centered design (also known as design thinking) offers a set of strategies to address these problems, and the first is empathy.

Empathy, as practiced in design thinking, has a lot to teach us about how we manage today’s pandemic and how we shift human behaviors to prepare for another one.

What Is Empathy, Anyway?

Empathy isn’t sympathy. Empathy isn’t about pitying someone for their problems or attempting to comfort them. Nope.

Instead, empathy is gaining a deep understanding of another person’s experiences and perspective. Designers use tools from cultural anthropology and psychology to help with this, because it’s far from easy.

How Empathy Can Help

1. We’re more effective when we’re less judgmental

Take a moment to think about who you’re judging in the midst of this pandemic. The people stockpiling toilet paper? The government of Italy? The sick people who just won’t stay home? There are plenty of opportunities to judge, but when we’re focused on what people are doing wrong we’re not focused on solutions.

If every problem is a human problem, we need to spend time understanding the human experiences playing out before our eyes. Why doesn’t that sick person stay home? What’s driving them -- is it financial, emotional, some combination, something else entirely? When we understand that person's experiences and perspectives we can respond far more effectively.

2. What helps me doesn’t necessarily help you

Many of us are coming up with solutions to the pandemic, which is great. We’re going to need lots of solutions on multiple levels to put this behind us. However, we often forget that the solutions that would help us won’t necessarily help other people. Plus, once we come up with a possible solution, confirmation bias kicks in and our minds automatically begin to look for information that seems to confirm that idea and discount evidence that doesn’t.

When the O’Briant Group team works with clients to solve a big, hairy challenge, we ask for a list of their solutions. That’s not because the problem has been solved -- if it had been, we wouldn’t have been hired -- but because solutions tend to coagulate into cognitive biases. Human beings love what we create, even if it’s just an idea, so that list of solutions becomes a list of biases to be aware of as we move through the design process.

Empathy helps us solve for one another, not just for ourselves.


3. Empathy helps us all think more clearly

Fear drives a lot of our decisions on a good day, and even more so when we face a new threat like the COVID-19 virus. The experience of being heard, though, helps calm the fear circuit operating in our bodies and minds. When that fear begins to melt away, we can think more clearly about our situation and responses.

Moreover, the practice of reflective communication, a tool the O’Briant Group team has borrowed from clinical psychology, helps people gain a better understanding of themselves. When your beliefs and perspectives are reflected back to you skillfully and without judgment, light bulbs often blink on. Certainly, we could all use more light as we navigate the challenges of a new pandemic.

The Limits of Empathy in a Pandemic

Empathy alone doesn't solve all problems. Human-centered research focuses on people, of course, but researchers also dig for the best possible information (that’s why our team members read a lot of academic articles).

When we all insist on understanding the best possible set of facts and developing empathy for the ways our fellow human beings perceive and interact with the difficulties we face, we are that much closer to solving the world’s biggest challenges.

About the O’Briant Group

An innovation and design thinking firm headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, the O’Briant Group helps clients from Fortune 500 companies to educational systems to entrepreneurs create scalable, sustainable change. We’re proud to be partnered with Google Cloud, Grow with Google, and Georgia State University. Learn about us at www.obriantgroup.com.

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