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Empathy: The Story of Human Connection

January 7, 2016 — by Steven Chaparro


By Steven Chaparro, Project Executive, Visioneering Studios

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes in an instant?” -Henry David Thoreau


There is nothing more powerful in the human experience than the connection between two people;  a mutual appreciation and sharing of personal stories. This is empathy.  To be empathetic is to understand what causes someone to laugh or to cry, or what incites them to dream or to give up. This ability is not always innate while some are better at it than others.  It requires an intentional effort and can be the product of experience.

In the world of design, there is a principle called design-thinking which has been made famous by the innovation consultancy, IDEO. It is a human-centered approach to problem solving which empowers individuals and organizations to become more creative and innovative.  It begins with empathy, but is further carried out with acts of defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing in a continuously looped process.

“Everyone Has a Story…If We Bother to Read It”

Empathy itself begins by understanding someone’s story. About five years ago, I recall being moved by this video, ‘Every Life Has a Story’ produced by Chick-fil-A, a national restaurant chain.  It was filmed as an internal training tool to teach their employees about customer empathy and how this helps to create great customer experiences.

They say that “Everyone Has a Story…If We Bother to Read It” is a pretty powerful statement. It eliminates assumptions, it erases pre-conceived ideas about customers and the reasons for their behavior.

Three years later, the current CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, wrote a blog post in which he shared this video produced by the Cleveland Clinic expressing the same idea of empathy and the human connection.

At Visioneering Studios, we employ the same approach, although our language may be different.  Our simplified approach includes envision, design, and build. As part of the envision phase, we begin with a ‘blank canvas’ mindset so we don’t carry with us the baggage of pre-conceived notions or solutions. We believe that as the process unfolds, the product will emerge.

Visioneering Studios is a story-driven firm.  Much of this comes from the training camp known as Walt Disney Imagineering, the design and development division of the of The Walt Disney Company.  Several of our principals spent years working as, or working for, Imagineers.  We believe that every design begins  with the story of our clients. We assume the posture of cultural anthropologists to first inquire, listen, observe, and experience their lives so that we may create in response.

For example, some of our clients are churches who ask us to come alongside them to help them envision the future expression and capacities in their physcial environments.  We begin by drafting tailored questionnaires which are very comprehensive.  After we review their responses, we meet with their leadership team onsite for what we call a ‘recon (reconnaissance) day’ in which, we take their responses and go deeper with a form of active listening. After processing this information, we then schedule and conduct a ‘Bluesky’ workshop in which we are embedded, onsite, with the client over a period of five straight days.

“Empathy is really important.  Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”  -Jane Goodall

For a church client, we attend their worship services and experience what a first time guest (user) might encounter.  What do they see when they approach the site entrance?  How are they directed to a parking space?  How easy is the walk from the parking lot to the entrance?  How are they greeted?  Is the way finding signage helpful or confusing?

In the software world, this would be called user experience, or UX . How is the guest going to experience the physical environment?  This entire experience must be designed or curated in an intentional manner.

For us, this entire experience begins with story, and the story is informed by understanding the client’s unique people, place, and passions.  We ask the following questions;

  1. People: What is unique about the people on your team and in your community?  Is there a cultural or value system that has developed into the organizational DNA?  Additionally, what is unique about the people (users) that use your product (facilities) or services (spiritual development)?  What are the demographic and psychographic profiles of both the people that are already your guests (users) compared to the profiles of the people within your target community (market)?  What is your market penetration?  For a church, it may be odd to use these business or UX terms, but they are directly applicable.

  2. Place: What is unique about your specific place (i.e. site, neighborhood, city, or region)?  We focus a great deal on place-making in our practice, which extracts and incorporates the social, cultural, economic, political and historical context of a particular community.  Rather than looking at the design challenge from the ‘four walls in’, or architectural perspective, we look at it from the ‘property lines out’, an urban planning focus.  What does this mean particularly for our client?  For a church, the questions might be whether this is an urban, suburban, or rural environment.  Are there industries that are moving into the region?  Are there trends indicating shifts in the makeup of the area over the next 5-10 years?  What are the cultural, entertainment, or educational assets in the community and how can we compliment them?

  3. Passions: In order for any company or organization to thrive, there has to be some unique value proposition or distinction that separates it from others.  What are the values, social causes, products, or services that you feel your organization is best suited to deliver like no other?  We tend to refer to this as an ‘organizational calling’ or a ‘brand promise’.  To say that a church should be focused on the spiritual development of its users is too vague.  For some, the focus may be elder care by partnering with an assisted living facility, if not developing on their own.  For others, it may be job training and creation by creating a coffee shop which trains ‘hard to hire’ individuals.  Yet, others may have a unique passion for special needs children.  Every organization has unique passions that do not always reveal themselves from the top leadership, but they bubble up organically from the bottom.

When design is initiated and informed by an empathetic, or a human-centered, approach, the product will always be informed by the process.  While I was in architecture school, I first learned to draft manually (Yeah, I’m that old).  It was invaluable training though, as we were told to never begin a design exercise with a pre-conception, or an idea, of what the end product would look like.  To pre-conceive is to defraud the end user of a better solution.  The process informs the product.  In fact, we say that our process is the product.

It all starts with empathy.  It starts with stories.