Designing with Compassion

Designing with Compassion

I am a huge fan of LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner's concept of Compassionate Management.

Jeff points out the difference between compassion and empathy when facing a person’s problem. Whilst empathy is feeling what a person is feeling, compassion goes further: it is putting oneself in a person’s shoes, then walking towards a solution to the problem with her.

When applying this principle, I realised that we should manage compassionately not just our teams, but all the stakeholders of our organisations. Users (who eventually become customers) are in my opinion the most important stakeholders of any company, so compassionate management starts with them. 

Managing users compassionately means relating to their feelings, understanding their problem deeply, and solving that problem to take them from pain to delight. It means designing and delivering the best product for their needs.

When facing someone's problem, we fundamentally want to answer 3 questions:

  • What happened to you?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?

The “why” is repeated until we can get to the real root of what happened. Finding this root is the signal to switch into problem-solving, where we reverse the questions to start with why:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • How will it solve the problem?
  • What is the solution?

This is, at core, the kick-off questions of a design process. For this reason, I believe that compassionate user management starts with compassionate design

To make these 3 kick-off questions more actionable, we then respectively translate them into:

  • Empathising with people by "wearing their shoes" to feel the pain as much as possible;
  • Understanding their problem by breaking down the process from its origination to its manifestation;
  • Executing on the solution, by neutralising the source of the problem and bringing delight.

Empathising with the person

To solve someone’s problem, we first try to relate as much as possible to her feeling. Empathy helps us to specify the goal to meet, which is to mitigate (if not neutralise) the cause of the pain. It also sets the tone of the whole design process. 

Empathising is tricky because every person reacts to the same situation in her own different way. Extending the Anna Karenina principle to design, we understand that there hardly can be consensus on what "feeling bad" or, going further, "needing something" is. We know who a happy user is but not precisely who an unhappy one is, because reactions to negative events differ from one person to another.

By empathising, we can picture each of these specific feelings and reactions, then group them under the same umbrella to find the common source of the pain: the problem. 

Understanding the person’s problem

Once we know what the problem is and how it makes the user feel, we try to understand how the problem occurred in the first place and how it makes her behave beyond the feeling we have identified. This is the core of user research and the hardest part of the design process in my opinion.

At this stage, we want to know how the user is coping with the problem and, eventually, how she is solving it today. If the problem is solved only partially and if this is a behaviour we observe on multiple occurrences, then there is a product opportunity. 

Ultimately, we want to be able to phrase these 5 sentences about the user:

  • She feels (feeling) from (when it started)
  • She feels so because she experienced (the problem)
  • She is doing (her self-made solution) to mitigate her pain
  • We help her annihilate the pain by (what our product/service does)
  • She is feeling happy when she does (the core action of our product)

The last two points are all about execution, which should be laser-focused now that the user is well known, the pain well understood and the problem precisely identified.

Executing on the solution

Execution is the actual building mode, where we apply all the insights we’ve gathered from the previous stages. This third phase should be the simplest but often becomes challenging because of our own flaw: the temptation of showing off. 

It’s easier to fall into showing off than most of us think. After all, don’t we all want to impress others? Don’t we as designers, product managers and makers want to show our entire palette of skills? Doing so often leads to using the most sophisticated techniques, and we end up completely losing focus on the main purpose of our work: solving people’s problem. We focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our users.

To avoid this, I personally (try to) stay in constant interaction with users when executing. Keeping a close relationship with users maintains the focus on solving their problems and bringing them delight. Compassionate Design becomes, as a result, a powerful humbling exercise. 

When we put compassion at the heart of our design process, we embody Human-Centered Design. We start from people, relate to their pain, get a clear picture of their problem, and can solve that very problem meaningfully.

Just as we manage our teams with compassion to get them to a delightful experience at work and push our companies forward, managing users with compassion is an excellent way for our teams to remain in pursuit of user happiness. Something we should be not just targeting, but obsessed with.

The User Happiness Curve

The User Happiness Curve

The Obsession of User Happiness

The Obsession of User Happiness