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Author's profile photo Janaki Kumar

Empathy at Work

Have you ever played the childhood game with your sibling or friend where you mirror their words and actions, much to their annoyance? Turns out that what you were doing was nature’s way to activate your mirror neurons and build your capacity for empathy!

Empathy was the topic discussed at the Enterprise UX Meetup held at SAP Labs, Palo Alto, on November 5th, 2015. The expert panel of speakers included Trina Barretto, Experience Design Lead at Airbnb, Jared Lewandowski, UX Manager for GoDaddy, Beth Dean, product designer at Facebook, and myself, Janaki Kumar leading the Design and Co-Innovation Center at SAP.


I kicked off the event with a warm up game where the audience played mirror-mirror in pairs and took turns leading and following. The game was greeted with excitement and giggles as it triggered childhood memories, but everyone agreed that it got increasingly easy to play. By the end, each pair was perfectly synchronized to a point that it was hard to distinguish between who was leading and who was following.


The game highlighted our mirror neurons at work. Researchers made this accidental discovery while testing a motor neuron in a monkey’s brain that fired every time the monkey grabbed a peanut. They were surprised to find that the same neuron fired when the monkey watched a human researcher reach for a peanut. It was as if the monkey’s brain could not tell the difference between seeing and doing – watching somebody do something was just like doing it yourself! They soon found that this was true for the human brain as well, and named these set of neurons “mirror neurons.”

So, how does this relate to enterprise software? When designing a consumer product, there is a good chance that you are a potential user of the product. This implies you could base your design decisions on what you like and don’t like. However, when designing an enterprise product, there is little chance that you are the call center agent, the warehouse operator, the factory worker or the C-level executive you are designing for. In this case, it becomes extremely important to activate your mirror neurons and develop a deep empathy for the target users to ensure that your design decisions align with their needs.

Here at the Design and Co-Innovation Center, we believe that empathy is the heartbeat of every design project. Find the heart beat early and it will guide your decisions in the right direction, leading to a delightful customer experience. During the presentation, I shared a few examples of customer projects that illustrated this point.


The event was a huge success with over 190 people in attendance. The speaker presentations were followed by lively panel discussion and audience Q&A. Our biggest takeaway from the event was that irrespective of industry – be it enterprise software, social media or the sharing economy – disruptive companies are using empathy to create innovative, meaningful designs that delight users. A special thank you to Joe Preston from Momentum for organizing this meetup. We look forward to the next one!



Here is a slideshow of the event.

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