“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.

Imagine the world if we put empathy vitamins in the water. A world in which people felt what others felt. Authentic empathy would be the end of war, inequality, racism, sexism… of all the isms.

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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: the middle manager secretly operating out of fear of losing her authority; the CEO who needs to seem confident but is  scared that he doesn’t know how to lead; the entrepreneur who is more optimistic than she should be (all real examples we've seen). All of that colors 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.

We focus on these forces 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 is everyone secretly worried about?

Often we find hidden, very human forces at play. 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, it 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.

Motivated by empathy alone, we are 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 without feeling like they must monitor us for gaffes in our work or operations.

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. Everyone wants to do quality work. Quality work takes time. So how do you balance that with efficiency? Under the banner of empathy, it’s easy — you strive to understand each individual client’s motivations and priorities. You work with the client to develop a comfortable work plan that hits the right balance.

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.