Empathy as the Default
September 3, 2019

  • 99% Invisible Ep. 363, ‘Invisible Women’
  • Empathy on the Edge by IDEO’s Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard

Despite the fact that emphatic design has been around for almost 3 decades, this practice still has not become commonplace in the design world, nor has it caught on in the larger sphere of research and innovation.

Emphatic design is the key to uncovering the hidden needs of the public, not only to guide designers towards new innovations and discoveries, but also to find the innovations that are doing a disservice to specific users and need to be reworked. I’ve experienced this firsthand being the owner of a 2016 Ford Escape and a woman. The fob key which unlocks all four doors when I am within a certain range, or when I click the unlock button once, is really cool and useful when I have a car full of passengers. However, the majority of my car rides are alone. It is always a concern when approaching my car alone at night that if a stranger were to follow me, they could easily hop into my passenger seat before I have the chance to fully get in, close the door, and finally lock all four doors in one click that is no longer convenient.

In this case, the designer may have been operating from an analytical mindset that prioritized business and the marketability of cool, new gadgets. There is likely an option to adjust the fob settings, but the fact that this feature is the default speaks to its wow-factor at the dealership. It is also possible that they were emphatically responding to a need for a hand-free way to unlock the car when your arms are full of groceries, but it seems unlikely that empathy for customers is the priority in an industry which only designs cars for the safety of half of the population. Regardless of the motivation, this is a new innovation which lacks empathy for some of its users. If I were to turn off this feature through the car settings, I would no longer get to enjoy the fraction of convenience and coolness that inspired this design in the first place.

I can’t help but assume that the “default human” consumer that this feature was designed for was not a woman, but a man. The foreseeable argument that this feature makes it easier for women to carry bags or groceries to their cars is far outweighed by a woman’s constant need to be aware of their safety. This leads me to guess that this feature was designed by men under the assumption that it would be convenient for male and female users based off of a man’s perception of a woman’s needs. It’s also possible that there were women involved in the process as well who are so used to the default male user profile that they forgot that the female user profile was incomplete. It is well known that cars are designed for the male driver in many respects. So for the sake of safety and even just a better product, companies within this industry should employ an empathic mindset and allow the actual needs of their users to guide innovation. I bet a campaign for cars designed based off of latent female needs would be a hit! As Caroline Criado Perez points out, the solution is simple; start by asking women about their needs. There are plenty of women willing to answer.

This post exists within a series of reflections on  topics and coursework from my Human-Centered Design class, taught by Marty Maxwell Lane at the University of Arkansas.