Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Empathy… “sounds wonderful but the search for empathy is simply misled” Donald Norman

I was looking at design methodologies and kept seeing the word ‘EMPATHY’ pop up. It puzzled me. I’ve read my Hume and thought, yes, empathy is a subjective feeling. If I have empathy with someone, it means I feel for them. Then I realised they were not using the word in this sense. They meant, literally putting yourself in their shoes or minds. That I find odd. How would a 25 year old graduate designer put themselves into the mind of someone who fits gas boilers? What they actually meant was, think about where they work, what they have to do to for the job and how they access learning and what they need to learn that fits their background. This actually comes down to analysis. But this is a bait and switch.

Donald Norman says, of this call for empathy in design, that “the concept is impossible, and even if possible, wrong”. I was seeing empathy used in pieces that actually mentioned Norman as one of their heroes! Yet here he was saying it was wrong-headed. He is absolutely right. There is no way you can put yourself into the heads of the hundreds, thousands, even tens and hundreds of thousands of learners. As Norman says “It sounds wonderful but the search for empathy is simply misled.” Not only is it not possible to understand individuals in this way, it is just not that useful.

It is not empathy but data you need. Who are these people, what do they need to actually do and how can we help them. As people they will be hugely variable but what they need to know and do, in order to achieve a goal, is relatively stable. This has little to do with empathy and a lot to do with understanding and reason.

Sure, the emotional side of learning is important and people like Norman, have written and researched the subject extensively. Positive emotions help people learn (Um et al., 2012). Even negative emotions (D’Mello et al., 2014) can help people learn, stimulating attention and motivation, including mild stress (Vogel and Schwabe, 2016). Although excessive stress can be detrimental to learning and memory. We know that emotions induce attention (Vuilleumier, 2005) and motivation that can be described as curiosity, where the novel or surprising can stimulate active interest (Oudeyer et al., 2016). In short, emotional events are remembered longer, more clearly and accurately than neutral events.

But trying to induce emotion in the design process is just not that relevant. We are in such a rush to include ‘emotion’ in design that we confuse emotion in learning process with emotion in the designer. It also seems like lazy signalling, for not doing the hard analysis up front, defaulting to the loose language of concern and sympathy.

All too often we latch on to a noun in the learning world without thinking much about what it actually means, what experts in the field say about it and bandy it about as though it were a certain truth. This is the opposite of showing empathy. It is the rather empty use of language.


Norman, D.A., 2004. Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Civitas Books.

Norman, D., 2019. Why I Don't Believe in Empathic Design.

Um, E., Plass, J.L., Hayward, E.O. and Homer, B.D., 2012. Emotional design in multimedia learning. Journal of educational psychology104(2), p.485.

D’Mello, S., Lehman, B., Pekrun, R. and Graesser, A., 2014. Confusion can be beneficial for learning. Learning and Instruction29, pp.153-170.

Vogel, S. and Schwabe, L., 2016. Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. npj Science of Learning1(1), pp.1-10.

Vuilleumier, P., 2005. How brains beware: neural mechanisms of emotional attention. Trends in cognitive sciences9(12), pp.585-594.

Oudeyer, P.Y., Gottlieb, J. and Lopes, M., 2016. Intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and learning: Theory and applications in educational technologies. Progress in brain research229, pp.257-284.


Anonymous said...

I would recommend Paul Bloom's book "Against Empathy" which is an exploration of the pros and cons of empathy in its widest sense, and within the definition you used. Bloom's very even-handed (but does not sit on the fence).

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