Empathy on the Brain

Empathy is a necessary component of product design. To design and make something that is comfortable to use for someone else, requires the maker of the product to imagine how another human being would feel while using it. This is a hard thing to do. Medical students have to take “bed side manners” classes that explicitly teach empathy for the patient. Some design schools do the same (check out this video in Product Design Resources).

Fortunately, humans come equipped with a special region in the brain whose job it is to help us see the world from another’s point of view. Here’s a short introduction by Rebecca Saxe, “How we read each other’s minds.”

So when we go to the movies, we relate to the characters and feel what they feel, and cry when they are sad, and laugh when they are happy, and cringe when things get awkward, because we have the Right TPJ (or RTPJ) region in our brain just behind and above our right ear. We aren’t born ready to use this part of our brain, as the experiments described by Dr. Saxe in the video show. It takes a long time for this social problem solving piece of mind to develop. But when this part of the brain does “comes online,” we are able to quickly navigate social situations with some basic understanding of why people do the things they do.

What does it mean to product design?

As always on this blog, I have to relate things back to product design. So let me start with user personas as cognitive scaffolding for designers. User personas are created to enhance the feelings of empathy for users among the design team. As I’ve wrote here in the past, there is a strong tendency to move in the direction of “us versus them”—designers versus the users. “Designers work hard to build great products, and users are just too dumb to get them.” User personas, when well created, help the whole design team to relate to their users not just on the function by function basis, but on the emotional impact basis—on how their products might affect their audience. That’s a powerful design tool!

A well developed user persona can move the conversation from “they should just learn how to use it” or “read the damn manual” to “Marsha is stressed because her infant is crying and she can’t devote her total attention to solving the problem she’s having with our product.” By relating to users on a personal level, designers can create accommodations and allow for greater error tolerance in their product specifications. Designers can assume that errors will be made, and empathize with their users when they happen (instead of blaming them).

What happens when RTPJ is faulty?

Like all parts of our bodies, brain parts vary from individual to individual. Some are born short, and some hit their heads on the top of the door frame. Some have perfect teeth, and some…well, some are profit centers for their dentists. What happens when RTPJ area is just not so well developed? Again, Dr. Saxe shows experimentally how social reasoning and problem solving can be drastically altered by a short (but powerful) magnetic pulse. Incapacitate RTPJ, and empathetic reasoning gets funky.

But what if a person is born with a faulty RTPJ area? The moral reasoning is intact, but this individual will have a hard time understanding other people’s motives. Consider Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin is a high-functioning autistic and a world-famous animal scientist. Here’s an article she wrote about her experiences trying to understand motivations of others in a work place: “Making the Transition from the World of School into the World of Work.” Interesting how the problem seems to be empathy-related. But not empathy in a way of “I feel your pain,” but empathy in a sense of “I understand where you are coming from.”

But while someone with a faulty RTPJ area might have problems relating to others, product designers can’t afford to do so. So use those user personas!

And try another person on for size…