Read Part I of the story here.

The Empathetic Method 

“Connecting with others” has always been the lofty promise of empathy. It explains why many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are so enamored with the word, and why some of them have turned empathy into a formal practice. In a blissfully naïve interview with Freakonomics Radio in 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opined on his company’s power to make people more empathetic by showing them what they share.

“First you connect over something that you have in common. So you recognize that the other person is a person,” Zuckerberg told the host. “But then they go connect over other things, and they debate other things, and they find that, ‘Hey, we agree on other things; we disagree on them; but now we can have productive and empathetic discussions, because we’re all people, and we recognize our common humanity.’”

It would be an admirable sentiment if it wasn’t mere sugar-coating. For companies like Facebook, empathy is often used as shorthand for ‘hyper-personalization.’ As the world becomes more complex and divided, knowing how factions of users want to experience its platform is not just good for business—it’s essential to the company’s survival. In 2015, Facebook launched its Empathy Lab as an effort to make its products and services more attuned to users with special needs; people with disabilities or those living in underdeveloped countries. Though it’s hard to argue with Facebook’s desire to make its products more useful and accessible, the effort highlights the inherent tensions in connecting empathy and business: More thoughtful products are important, as long as they attract more users.

Questions from an Empathy Card decks.

Danielle Krettek is used to navigating the contradictions of the technology world. When she joined Google, she came to the notoriously engineering-led company with a radical idea. Having spent her early career working as a designer and researcher at Nike and Apple, she’d noticed how technology—despite its makers’ best intentions—often ignored users’ emotional well-being in return for efficiency and functionality. At Google, she wanted to bring an element of humanity to the company’s products.

“I was seeing how technology ignores this whole emotional layer of our human experience,” she told me over the phone from her office in California. “I’ve noticed that the intuitive interaction of multitouch and the appverse has led to very simple, very light, and deeply functionally-led experiences. And the thing that’s glaringly missing for me is all of the emotional experience. Now that technology is wall-to-wall and in every nook and cranny of our lives, it’s just radically insufficient.” 

A few years ago, Krettek started Google’s Empathy Lab, a multidisciplinary team that works mostly within the company’s AI and Machine Learning team, but also acts as a roving research group that advocates for users’ emotional well-being across various product teams. Krettek safeguards specifics around the kinds of projects the Empathy Lab works on, but right now most of her lab’s resources go toward helping machine learning engineers “build humanity” into their training models and algorithms for voice assistants. “We work in a group of 600 or 700 people doing lots of different things, and what I tend to do is kind of be the human inspiration,” she explained. 

That companies like Google are willing to throw money at building products with an emotional conscience is, on one hand, an admission of what’s been sorely lacking in all of our habit-forming, thumb-swiping interactions with tech products for the past decade. But it’s also a reaction to the way technology itself is changing. As apps become more personalized and predictive, and voice assistants more pervasive, Krettek’s work is a small but important effort that will help technology slide even more seamlessly into every aspect of our lives.

Other big tech companies have begun to catch on, too. Nokia Bell Labs, the research center famous for inventing the transistor, has spent the last couple of years investing time and money in developing wearable technology that will help people communicate more empathically. Marcus Weldon, Bell Labs’ president, believes that most of the world’s problems are solvable by facilitating a deeper connection than what’s currently possible with phones and computers. 

“We’ve become isolated in little silos of existence,” he told me for a story I previously reported for Wired magazine about the company. “What’s lacking is state transfer between individuals so you can actually feel how they feel.” Bell Labs’ solution, called The Sleeve, is like a souped-up Apple Watch that’s able to measure biometric data like heart rate and perspiration, then translate that information into more emotionally rich messages communicated through haptic feedback. Eventually, this form of “sixth sense” technology could be embedded into more of our devices, layering the world with a heightened sense of emotion. 

We’re already seeing that happen in some form, on a much smaller scale. For Krettek’s part, she’s spent the last couple of years with Google Assistant’s personality team, which is responsible for imbuing a sense of humanness in products like Google Home or Google Assistant. Krettek describes herself as helping engineers, product managers, writers, and scientists to better understand the nuances of human sentiment, which can make the difference between a technology product sounding creepy or comforting. The way she sees it, technology is unavoidable for most people, and it’s only going to become more intimately embedded in our lives. The defining challenges of contemporary UX design is to ensure that people interact with technology in a way that feels natural (if not quite yet human), and that technology interacts with people in a way that feels respectful of their time, emotions, and privacy. “I think we’re moving into a new wave for a new era, where it’s actually about ‘design feeling’ instead of ‘design thinking,’” she said.

Krettek’s idealism is echoed by many of empathy’s biggest advocates, who say the word’s sudden prevalence is inherently good. “In my view, if empathy becomes more ubiquitous, that’s probably not going to be a bad thing for anybody,” Sub Rosa’s Ventura said.

Feelings for sale

There’s plenty of reason to believe that a more empathetic world could solve some of the problems caused by blind self-interest. But practicing personal empathy is different from selling it as a marketing tool that can be learned and honed for the betterment of the bottom line. In the last few years, empathy has garnered some vocal opponents in the design world, who argue the concept is self-serving, narrow-minded, and used as a crutch in the design process. These failures can lead to designing products that solve only a small subset of users’ issues and ignore the wider implications of designing with empathy. 

“We should think of ourselves as empathetic people within an empathetic practice,” said design consultant Thomas Wendt, who wrote a piece for the ethnography website EPIC titled “Empathy as Faux Ethics.” “But I don’t know—for me, that’s as far as it goes. Anything beyond that becomes sort of a commodification of empathy, which feels very counterintuitive and frankly, just kind of icky.”

Even outside of the design world, the selling of empathy as a silver bullet solution runs the risk of neutering its power. Wendt takes particular issue with the contradiction of for-profit companies using empathy as a means for making more money. “It’s weird right?” he said. “It’s taking one of the most inherent human qualities we have and putting a price tag on it.” 

Ask proponents of empathy like Ventura, Krettek, and Hess, and they’ll acknowledge empathy isn’t foolproof. Companies can ’empathy-wash’ their message in the same way some ‘greenwash’ their marketing to look more environmentally friendly. Empathy can be misused for narrow or short-sighted goals, and at its worst, can even be manipulated for malevolent purposes. Ventura brings up the point that, by his own definition, Cambridge Analytica’s mining and analysis of Facebook data to influence the 2016 elections could be considered empathetic. “It was nefarious, but at its core it was a deep understanding of these particular people. There was a lot of empathy in their behavior.” 

The greatest risk of empathy-washing is likely just a classic case of user fatigue. Like other well-intentioned words and phrases that are absorbed by the business leadership machine, empathy runs the risk of losing its value the more it’s plastered across book covers and headlines. Marketing empathy’s pristine altruism has the unintended effect of diluting its power. 

User testing

Back at the workshop, Ventura instructed the crowd to split off into pairs of strangers. Each attendee was armed with two tarot-style cards printed with probing questions like “What questions make you most uncomfortable?” or “What motivates you to progress?” Ventura set a timer for 10 minutes, and the room lit up with quiet conversations that cumulatively produced an echoing boom. 

The woman I was partnered with told me that her marketing team at a global consumer brand had been having trouble communicating. People were stressed and stretched too thin. There was no time for taking stock of her team’s mental health. She said she wanted to be able to apply the same level of care and empathy she feels in her personal life to her work life—and that it was, frankly, really hard.

A question card, asking "What makes an experience meaningful?", from an Empathy Card deck.

The conversation felt a little weird and forced, but it also worked. Despite knowing only her first name, I felt like I learned more about her outlook on work than I’ve learned about many of my friends. 

“It’s really beautiful to see a room shift like that,” Ventura said at the end of the exercise. When it works, he continued, empathy can get people to open up—even with perfect strangers.

“Quick show of hands,” he said, ready to prove his point. “How many of you have these kinds of conversations with your colleagues?” 

No one raised their hand.

This article was produced in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design.