Empathy with blinders

A brief warning about the corporatization of human-centered design.

Last week, I went to a screening of “City Rising”—a brutal, eye-opening documentary about the Bay Area’s housing crisis. The long and short of the problem is that low-income locals are being displaced in large numbers by the tech boom. When a community experiences a big influx of high-income workers, landlords are incentivized to evict poor tenants and raise rent prices. In many parts of California, tenants can be evicted without much warning—even if they have done nothing wrong. Real estate developers are incentivized to build fancy new high-rises and charge way more for rent than working-class people could ever afford. And so, they often have nowhere to go but the streets.

The morning after the film screening, I went to work at my comfortable job as a user experience designer at a large tech company. Designers at companies like mine are empathy evangelists. They’ll tell you that empathy is both a tool and a mindset—an indispensable part of the design process. They’ll preach about the importance of imagining yourself in the users’ shoes. These tech industry designers bow down at the altar of empathy, and it’s really starting to piss me off.

Ultimately, the role of the UX designer in a for-profit company is to help create products that will improve business metrics. For the most part, a design project will not be prioritized unless it moves numbers that the business cares about. And it will most certainly be killed if it hurts these numbers. Of course, the best way to create a design that helps business is to truly understand your end-users. To learn from them. To “empathize” with them. You have to internalize their needs in order to create something useful and impactful.

But this sort of corporate-designer-empathy is far from the real thing. Corporations only care about users’ problems insofar as they can be monetized. Corporate-designer-empathy is useful because it helps uncover problems that are particularly ripe for monetization. (And because it helps designers create revenue-generating solutions). There’s nothing wrong with this sort of “empathy”, per se. Companies can provide a lot of value and time-savings to people in exchange for money. Ideally, UX designers can create win-win scenarios for the customer and the corporation. But we should not trick ourselves into thinking that corporate-designer-empathy is similar to the real deal. It is particularly narrow in scope. It trains us to think about empathy as a tool for capital accumulation. It is empathy inside of a tiny, tiny box. It is empathy with blinders.

What does all this mean for the people whose problems can’t be easily monetized? I’m so busy “empathizing” for my end users that I’ve been ignoring the housing crisis right under my nose. This isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game because empathy is (probably) not a limited resource. But I worry that by polluting the term, we are also shrinking our imaginations. I worry that, over the long term, we’ll forget how to have empathy for problems that aren’t business opportunities. I worry that we are narrowing the scope of what our empathy can and should be.

Thanks to the Tech Equity Collaborative for hosting the screening of “City Rising.” If you want to learn more about these issues, you should visit their website here.


Straight from my brain to your inbox—a semi-weekly essay on cognitive science, design, politics, or some combination thereof.