Empathy, not Kindness, in the Era of Globalization

Good design requires empathy, not just a friendly nature with users.

Garcia Lam

This past year, the year of the “zoom boom”, I was on a project which involved participants across four different continents. Undoubtedly, this led to more than one communication misses. This kind of in-the-moment globalization is the new normal and will be a continuing trend in how business is conducted. While potentially posing a few issues in the exchange of information, it can be easily rectified if prepared for in advance. Being “kind” is simply not enough, you must understand your user’s feelings and thoughts.

1. Limit Your Expectations

You can’t expect your users to have the same background as you which means there will always be some cultural barriers - this is true even if you were raised in the same area. When working with others you need more than kindness, you need empathy. What you consider to be kind and considerate might, to another person’s culture, not read.

A perfect example for this is traveling from the US to India. If you’ve done this before you might note that the initial American airport experience is filled with travelers patiently standing in long security check lines and quietly distancing yourself from strangers with the “universal” sign of “don’t talk to me, I have headphones in.” Landing in India those societal rules are gone and new ones are enforced. Personal space? A thing of the past. Waiting your turn in line becomes a much more aggressive struggle to keep your place. Neither of these approaches to airport etiquette are right or wrong, better or worse, they are simply different, and if you have not prepared yourself to change your expectations for what “should be” and what is “right”, you might find a barrier between yourself and appreciating something new.

You have to limit your expectations for your user’s reactions to your work. You might think what you’ve done is great because it makes sense to your lived experience and aligns with your social and economic background. If you’re a good designer, you don’t search out reactions that simply validate your ideas. You want to hear opinions that challenge you to think of new and better solutions. If you don’t choose to empathize with your user, you won’t know how to improve your product for a wider market.

2. Do Your Research

You have a wonderful advantage in the 21st century with a readily available toolkit at your disposal: the internet. This sounds obvious, but as a designer, user research is an initial important step in the design process. While this can give clear insight and great statistics for how and why people perform tasks and reach their goals, devoting part of your user research to the culture in which users live can do wonders for enhancing empathy. Relying on your own notion of polite civility could be a stumbling block for truly understanding why people do what they do.

If you know your target demographic is Brazilian, do some quick research about Brazilian culture, language and history. It might surprise you how different or similar it is to your own lived experience. Not only will this help you pick up on any references casually dropped, but it will create a better understanding and build a connection to you and your user.

3. Be Open

Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings, to the extent of imagining what the other person is thinking or feeling, and of responding with care. - Dona Matthews Ph.D.

Practicing a global vision of empathy increases humility, equality, and compassion. What is deeply important is being able to understand your user’s feelings and beliefs which informs their actions. We, as designers, are creating experiences that align with a person’s natural inclination for action and we need guidance from those for whom we wish to create. You need to be open to hearing other’s stories, opinions, knowledge, and input, and without empathy it will make your job increasingly difficult.

Designers need to get to know their user, understanding their needs, wants, and objectives. This means observing and engaging with people in order to understand them on a psychological and emotional level. Be kind, but be more. Kindness is the character you bring to your interactions to build rapport, but you have to empathize to have meaningful insight and communication to extend your reach across the globe.