Skip to Content

How I Got “Religion” Around Empathy and Design Thinking

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend SAP’s Tech Ed event in Madrid, which was co-located with Sapphire. I was introduced to some interesting people and concepts, and thought it worthwhile to discuss with readers both on my company’s blog and here.  The first of those is “empathy.” When I first heard this term in the context of application development and delivery I was befuddled.  What does such a sociologically charged term have to do with technology implementation? I mean, we all know that some kind of accommodation must be made for people with disabilities and that often our thought process is culturally charged, but empathy?  What is its role and why should you, if you’re a consumer of technology, rather than a creator of it care about it?

It all starts to come clear when you couple the notion of empathy with Design Thinking.

In the world of design thinking, any human-facing technology must have three elements:  it must have business viability (in other words, it has to answer a functional need), it must be technologically feasible (means you actually have to be able to make it work), and finally it has to be desirable for the humans that will be using it. Desirability doesn’t just mean they need it functionally, it means they might actually WANT to use it. I’ll tell you as an IT veteran of oh-so-many-years that this was the most often overlooked part of application development, and it was probably the single biggest source of implementation failure in my career:  technological successes and cultural failures.  And while we had our excuses back then – generally we were lucky to get out of green-bar paper and move onto laser printing – in today’s world of consumerized IT, we just can’t get away with it anymore. If an app isn’t desirable, it’s going to get deleted from our devices in a New York minute.  We’ll figure out another way to solve the problem.

When I returned home I got a really graphic example of what can happen when we don’t think about a new technology’s desirability.  I really like the pharmacy staff at my local chain drug store (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons).  They’ve been there as long as I’ve lived here, giving lie to the notion of intractable turnover in stores. But at the end of October, my favorite pharmacy associate Mary, retired.  Why did she retire?  Because she was expected to learn a new computer application and was afraid she was just too old to figure it out.  Other people on the staff tried to convince her to stay.  Heaven knows I did too. But she left.  And when I got back from Madrid, I saw that many of her fears were not unfounded.

The new system was meant to eliminate the need to sign the paper waiver label we all sign when we pick up scrips. Instead, we can sign right on the same screen where we sign for our credit card purchases.  And apparently, the new system was also supposed to contain a full list of what the customer could expect to pick up.  Instead of asking me “How many are you here to pick up?” the new system shows the associate a full list of what’s in the order, along with other prescriptions that might be soon coming up for refill.

This all seems reasonable. It eliminates manual record-keeping (for the waiver signatures) and also the hunting and pecking for the full set of scrips, except it just wasn’t quite right.

  • The new system is slow – it takes it a while to load the information for the pharmacist to see.
  • The new system is confusing – along with listing the drugs that are ready for pick-up, it also apparently lists those that are coming soon.  The pharmacy clerk then has to ask the customer if he or she wants that one too, and then start the hunting and pecking process to find those scrips.

In other words, the system is functional, and more or less technologically feasible, but it just doesn’t take into account the way people work or HOW they want to work.  Of course, it’s always easy to smugly say “Well, people really don’t like change.”  And of course, they don’t.  But that doesn’t let a technologist off the hook.  Our goal has to be to make it desirable.  To make the shift a little easier.  And no matter how you slice it, the lines are way longer than they used to be.

Now, maybe one day that new pharmacy system is going to work perfectly and we’ll all zip along.  But in the meanwhile, lines are longer (as the head pharmacist observes every time I stop by), and the world moves more slowly. And I miss Mary, who really did know how to keep the pharmacy train running on time.  I just keep asking myself, “Did the designers actually talk to old-timers and new-timers both?” 

So that’s why empathy matters.  Without it, we often end up bound by the laws of unintended consequences.  And those consequences can damage our business.  I’ve got religion now.  Empathy matters.  And I do miss Mary the pharmacy associate a lot.

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
  • Hi Paula,

    Thanks for this blog… I think I know the pharmacy you are speaking of (or it’s just really coincidental) and I must admit, I did not consider empathy in Design Thinking while I was in line – I was thinking empathy for the pharmacy associates – who looked very uncomfortable as some very UN-empathetic customers grumbled.

  • I like this line

    If an app isn’t desirable, it’s going to get deleted from our devices in a New York minute

    How true these days and we can no longer hide behind green bar paper to pull us through.

    Thank you for taking the time to write up this blog.


  • Paula,

    Excellent blog, beautifully written, and it makes an important point. Thank you.

    Even though I work mostly in the proverbial ivory tower of software architecture, I try to learn as much as a can about how end users actually work with software by visiting them on-site, watching them as they interact with the system, and asking them many questions, and it’s amazing how much one can learn with this approach. 🙂 Your blog reminds me that next time, I should try to get a diverse sample of end users, too.



  • Hi Paula,

    Nice blog post, and you’re obviously a great storyteller!

    Couldn’t agree more about desirability and making what the end user needs. My best projects always have been those where I had the opportunity to directly connect and interact with the end users, and to be able to ‘tweak’ the solution as would help them the most.

    Cheers, Fred

  • Hi Paula,

    It was great fun talking to you at TechEd. I love it when someone makes my brain tickle and challenges my opinions. It always turns out for the better.

    In this case, we both agree. And you managed to bring the message in a very elegant way. This is a very well written story on how our own thought processes have a big impact on the people, for whom we eventually write our software.


  • Those weeks (since Madrid) seem to have flashed by in a “New York minute”. Catching up with this good content and thinking about a great exercise that Lakshman Pachineela Seshadri created for us in our Empathy Event in #sapteched Bangalore that really made this even more personal  .  Don’t know if you folks are familiar with the “wallet exercise” but it was a powerful, short and personal way to have people see through another’s eyes.  Some were a bit taken back with the intimacy of the exercise (looking at someone’s wallet) but the point wasn’t invading privacy but rather illustrating that when we design things “thinking” we know the end users needs without the real dillegence of full observation, querying, iterations of conversation, research and most importantly #empathy , we are bound to create a product falling short of the desireability mark.  So as you say Paula, desireablity (or missing that) is one of the biggest single causes of IT fail.

    Thanks for the blog and am hoping others will share some of the experiences they had in Bangalore at the Practicing Empathy event with others: Seung Chan Lim was there, as was Hester Hilbrecht  , Mrinal Wadhwa , Muthu Ranganathan , Abhisek Patnaik , Jansi Rani Murugesan , Mark Finnern xMoshe Naveh (Old Acct) John Patterson

  • Great story Paula and I am glad Mary retired.  She needed the time to just enjoy life.

    Also glad you “designed” a safe way home from the protests that occurred during Sapphire.


    PS I use empathy by not responding to too many posts…..good design huh? 😉

  • Thanks Paula, a beautifully written blog that makes your point strongly and very practically.  Something I’ve seen happen too often on too many projects, is that instead of empathy was substituted “what the customer asked for – literally” even when that was never going to be a good fit or where how the words were interpreted were fairly obviously not what was intended. 

    To me it’s important to understand that empathy is as much about taking the time to understand the non-verbal messages as much as the verbal. And the old line about no-one-likes-change-except-babies-with-wet-nappies is just a cop-out. In my experience, people do welcome change if they see a benefit, if they feel involved in the decision, and we make the logistics of change easy.  Otherwise we’d all still be using landline phones, typewriters, telegraphs, mangles, iceboxes, flints, … 😉