Towards empathetic design: surer, simpler, and stable design for the real problems

There has been a considerable upsurge of interest in design and development community in reinforcing ‘design thinking’ as if it is a homogeneous set of ideas which can be applied without paradoxes tensions and ethical dilemma.

I submit that we need to step a little away from the dominant discourse on need identification, definition and transformation-to understand a deep divide between academia and the communities suffering from persistent problems.   Why so many designers should be disengaged from so many real life problems. Today India needs millions of designers because that is one of the weakest link in the value chain of new products and services. Is it possible to trace part of the reason for the disconnect in the possible lack of empathetic thinking? or is it that alternative demands on the skills of designers from more prosperous clients cannot be outbid by the weak access and articulation of societal agenda by the affected people.  Naturally, common people cannot pay my fees, nor give me all those benefits which large corporate clients can pay.  Can not I work with both?  Should I not persuade the  larger organisations to become more empathetic towards the unmet needs of society, collaborate with grassroots innovators and even converse with creative children?


May I propose a debate on so called design thinking so that we don’t mask ambivalence in our position on the persistent inertia in redesigning products and services affecting the millions of disadvantaged people. Let me frame key questions:

  1. a) a general problem of many disciplines, management included, is that institutional processes don’t discriminate as to the problems of which clients groups are prioritised.  So long a job is well done, and published well, it doesn’t not matter whose problem is addressed or not addressed. Peer recognition is prioritized over recognition by the communities. Ironically, People who pay our salaries cannot demand any direct reciprocity and responsibility in our action to alleviation their pains and problems;
  2. b) the problems that we do solve with the help of students or otherwise, often remain at the prototype stage. India is said to be the country of prototypes. What kind of ‘design thinking’ framework will make us satisfied with not finishing things, iteratively and interactively redesign them through relay process of student batches trill the stable, robust solution emerges?
  3. c) how do we finish a prototype into a finished product. Naturally, we need to user trials, but how do we select users for  a product that has not been developed yet? In that case we need to find potential user in the region where that problem is most pervasive. I will not assert that products which go through such trials always succeed.  Mortality may takes place because we did not listen to the potential users carefully; we were too convinced about the solution in our mind. Sometimes we have a solution and then search for the problem to which it will fit. When solutions are in search of a problem, we can find new areas of application that original designer may not have thought about. Many designers want to meet all the unmet needs through single product and that too in the first version itself. This makes the task very onerous, cost sometimes too high, maintenance a bit difficult and consumer willingness to pay for each added feature may not manifest clearly. Simpler, surer and stable designs must take precedence over ambitious but unstable and too complicated to manage solutions. Empathetic drivers will ensure that we stress more on solving real problem of needy community members rather that adding one more choice to customers to already flooded with alternatives.

Time has come to designs that make a significant and meaningful difference: now and here rather than designs that adorn our shelves, books and walls.


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