The Challenge with Empathy





Recently, I attended a talk by Dr. Verna Yiu (CEO of Alberta Health Services) where she discussed how healthcare is at risk of losing the human connection that is so critical to achieving outstanding patient outcomes. The premise of the talk was to remind everyone that in an age of breakneck technology advances, the patient is still at the centre.

She recounted stories describing moments when healthcare providers inadvertently connected with patients on an emotional level gaining insight into their feelings and behaviours. She showed videos from the patient perspective to shine light on their experiences, inside and outside of hospital care. The videos allowed other providers to see what their patients see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. Each story — a moment of spontaneous awareness — demonstrated the power of empathy, the application of that acquired knowledge and the impact on those involved.


The Difference Between Care & Caring, created by the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation

As a User Experience consultant, the parallels with the work we do were immediately apparent to me: the human-centric approach, the acquisition of knowledge through empathy, and the informed decision-making leading to smart outcomes. Whether you call them a patient/customer/user and offer a service/product/care, the decisions made by those in the position to make them should be well-informed by those receiving them.

“The need for empathy in design is becoming an increasingly important factor. With most technologies now used by a whole range of people, from different cultures, with a variety of physical, mental, and situational constraints, we must develop an understanding of how we can design products that appeal to, support and enable people.”
—Empathic Design: Is Empathy the UX Holy Grail?

At nForm, we continue to see a human-centred approach treated as a competitive advantage within a growing number of organizations across all sectors. Empathy mapping, customer journeys and persona development have become common place, even at the C level. Web analytics, surveys, interviews are leveraged and contrasted against business intelligence to validate assumptions and corroborate evidence. Even the most monolithic organizations have built strategic business plans centered around the “Know Your Customer”(KYC) protocol. The adoption of the methods and tactics is occurring and that is a wonderful thing to behold. The shift in thinking away from “genius design” thinking to one of human-centricity is well underway.

In Dr. Yiu’s talk, she promoted the fact that on the Alberta Health Services (AHS) website there is an area for healthcare practitioners and patients to submit their stories. Healthcare professionals are encouraged to share so that the organization can eventually do something with it, whether it be to create a video like the one above or something completely different. Multiple offline methods have also been devised. The point is, organizations like AHS aren’t struggling with the gathering of intelligence. The struggle we see is in operationalizing the information once it’s been gathered.

Generating empathy maps, customer journeys, personas, and even video content is a valuable exercise. Empathy especially removes any preconceptions and bias that one might hold about another individual, group or object. The artifacts effectively condense and summarize large bodies of information into succinct and well-crafted messages. However, these artifacts often end up being under-utilized after creation, and are cast off the side of someone’s desk. The reason, we learned long ago, is that such deliverables hold little value unless they are actionable.

It’s not enough to document how someone feels or behaves. The deliverables must influence and inform the actions of everyone and everything moving forward. The challenge we’ve seen with our clients lies in how to operationalize the knowledge attained from what has been gathered:

  • How do you translate empathy into something tactical and pragmatic?
  • How do you disseminate the findings in meaningful ways?
  • How do you measure adoption, value and understanding of these learnings?
  • How do you integrate empathy into the decision-making process?
  • How would learnings modify, re-define or re-structure your current offerings?
  • How does empathy affect the way you interact with customers, with your coworkers, with your employees?
  • How do you weave insights into the social fabric of your organization?

These are just a few of the questions we ask of our clients when they embark on integrating a human-centered approach to business. The key to long-term, sustainable and impactful change isn’t in the collection of data. The key is in how the data is translated and applied, for which there is no magic formula.

Therein lies the next challenge.