Should Designers Have Empathy for More Than Just “Users?”


Good design usually begins with research to uncover user needs in order to build empathy for those one is designing for. Or so the typical explanation goes. But what if this view is actually profoundly limiting and potentially resulting in negative consequences? It is a question worth considering.

It is no secret that inequality continues to grow—not just in the US, but globally. As Stanford economist Paul Oyer notes, “Times are good if you are college educated and working in the right industries in the right locations, but the last 50 years have been terrible for people with lower skills. Adjusted for inflation, the average earnings of a man who didn’t go to college is lower now than it was 50 years ago.”

What this means for design, is that if inequality continues to grow, the number of users able to afford and engage with the fruits of much of design’s labor will continue to shrink. Empathy for users is undoubtedly a positive thing. However, one should perhaps pause and reflect on the consequences of what occurs when the potential user base shrinks. 

Every design, no matter how big or small, creates externalities. That is, effects that are not confined to the producer or immediate user of the design. The automobile and carbon emissions are a classic example. But really every design creates an externality of some kind, ultimately shaping the world that all of us must live in. Do designers have an obligation then to not just have empathy for their users, but also empathy for those not using the product? It is an odd question to ask, but one worth asking. Especially with rising inequality that limits the number of people who can afford the most innovative designs reshaping our world currently. 

Greg VanderPol