“Empathy." Ugh. Such a buzzword.

But it’s too powerful a word to bury. Genuine empathy is the most powerful force imaginable to alter (and improve) human behavior.

By resonating with another person’s suffering — or celebrating their successes — your own choices and feelings change. Now their happiness is your happiness. Motivations synchronize. You can intrinsically apply your abilities to their wellbeing.

Almost, but not quite, magical. 🎩

The power of rationality + empathy

Empathy is at the intersection of rationality and emotion. To deeply relate to another person, transcend the impulse of “me first,” and tap into the wonders of the human brain in service of making concrete decisions that improve the world? 

We’re all born with this superpower. We lose that power. We can get it back.

The influence, importance, and technical complexity of empathy should not be understated or dismissed. Dr. Helen Riess explains in the Journal of Patient Experience:

“Empathy plays a critical interpersonal and societal role, enabling sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals and providing an emotional bridge that promotes prosocial behavior.

This capacity requires an exquisite interplay of neural networks and enables us to perceive the emotions of others, resonate with them emotionally and cognitively, to take in the perspective of others, and to distinguish between our own and others’ emotions.”

— Dr. Helen Riess

If you don't think this is all-but-infinitely complex, imagine trying to program empathy into a machine.

Dr. Riess goes on to explore just how vital this skill is to individuals — and even the ongoing survival of our species:

“Why is the human brain designed for this complex, intricate task? If human existence was simply the result of ‘survival of the fittest,’ we would be wired solely to dominate others, not to respond to their suffering.

Our capacity to perceive and resonate with others’ suffering allows us to feel and understand their pain. The personal distress experienced by observing others’ pain often motivates us to respond with compassion. The survival of our species depends on mutual aid, and providing it reduces our own distress.”

— Dr. Helen Riess again

Now imagine a world in which we had empathy vitamins in the water. A world in which people felt what others felt and acted accordingly. Authentic empathy would be the end of war, inequality, racism, sexism… of all the nasty isms.

Empathy @ Cozy

Empathy drives every level of our work. We approach our clients with empathy — feeling what makes them anxious or happy. Those motivations are often buried. Real examples we’ve seen:

  • a middle manager secretly operating out of fear of losing her authority
  • a CEO who needs to seem confident but is scared that he doesn’t know how to lead
  • an entrepreneur who’s more optimistic than she should be

These underlying ambitions color how we work together and make our clients successful beyond the metrics.

And, of course, empathy for the end-user fuels all of our design work. We have to really care about how a person feels when they interact with our client’s site. Did they come from an ad with a specific message that grabbed their interest? Are we interrupting their day with a chore? Did they reach out to us to solve a problem? 

If we can make the user’s day a little brighter after an interaction with our work, they’re more likely to transact with our client, to come back, and perhaps, even, to tell their friends.

Empathy operationalized

We focus on building this empathy in the early phases of our work, during the Connect phase. (You might hear us refer to “operationalized empathy”, or “applied empathy”.) We ask probing questions to understand the project’s purpose. We also want to understand what’s behind the purpose… 

  • What triggered the project? 
  • What’s motivating the people involved? 
  • What does success look like? 
  • What’s everyone secretly worried about?

Often we unearth hidden, personal forces. Perhaps an exec overheard a disparaging comment at a dinner party that motivated her to trigger a redesign. Or maybe an article posted by an ex-developer led to a bigger conversation about a re-platform. Maybe a revitalizing new product line is due out, and the company’s future is riding on its successful debut. Or perhaps a new hire is trying to make an impression on her team or her boss. (Again, these examples are all real!)

Understanding these forces helps us not only build the right product, but also helps us positively support our client along the way. It ensures we’re all pushing in the same direction. Often, it gives us a map for the kind of success that a project brief alone could never outline.

From empathy: everything

Motivated by empathy alone, we’re driven to do quality work: work our clients can trust, feel good about, and see achieving their goals.

We’re compelled to be dependable, so clients can rest easy. 

We power our relationships with respect and value diversity because that’s what you do when you care about other people.

We care about community because people are wonderful, education and curiosity because that’s how we learn how to help people, efficiency because waste makes people miserable, and we prioritize relationships internally and externally because that’s our fuel.

All these typical values are secondary — mere outcomes of empathy. And seeing them through the lens of empathy helps us balance their priority. 

For example, everyone wants quality work. Quality work takes time. How do we balance quality versus efficiency? Under the banner of empathy, it’s straightforward — we understand that client’s motivations, priorities, and concerns. We collaborate as equals with the client to develop a comfortable work plan that hits the right balance, that maximize the upsides (reduced risk, improved metrics, etc.) while minimizing the downsides (cost, time, etc.).

Now, imagine if all designers and marketers were motivated by such human factors. We could collectively let our guard down just a bit in a world filled with aggressive advertising, under-designed products, and bewildering apps.

The world would feel a bit easier, a bit less stressful. That’s the win we’re after. We’re not here to make design save the world. We just want to do our part to improve it.