Dennis’s War Story: Negotiating between sympathy and empathy
By Steve Portigal at 8:01 am, Wednesday October 17 2012
Part 30 of 68 in the series War Stories

Design researcher Dennis Nordstrom tells a story about his team’s own emotional journey as they find themselves face-to-face with someone else’s distress.

Whenever we conduct design research our aim is to gain empathy for our target audience. Through empathy we enable ourselves to bring together our imagination and creativity as a way to develop a better tomorrow.

This was exactly our goal when our team was designing for people who were chronically ill. We were conducting research in major US cities and we were about to finish up our interviews in Philadelphia. We were preparing ourselves for the next participant and knew from our recruiter that she was a woman in her early sixties living on her own. Everything else about her was for us to find out.

As we walked up to her door we were talking amongst ourselves about how inspiring it had been to actually meet all these participants, and to hear about how they had overcome the major life changes that came with being diagnosed with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions, or even chronic liver diseases.

We knocked on her door, and heard a voice behind the door invite us in. We walked inside and the first thing we noticed was the smell. It was extremely pungent, to say the least. It was the smell of old urine and vomit mixed with rotten wood and mildew. I saw a figure slowly emerging from the hall. Her arthritis was so awful that she could barely walk. Her dog was walking right next to her cane. It was an older dog, blind in one eye and with several teeth missing. It tried to bark at us, but the poor thing could barely make a sound. Besides the dog, our participant had about nine cats living in her house.

She came over and greeted us, and we introduced ourselves and thanked her for her hospitality. She offered us something to drink, but her condition was so bad that she needed help with getting the drinks out of her refrigerator and onto the table.

From the moment we sat down we had cats crawling all over us. They were extremely curious and wanted lots of attention. One cat even laid down flat on my notebook, so that I would pay attention to it. It became clear to us that all manual note taking was out of the question. None of us were able to write anything down.

We all sat there mesmerized as she told us her story. She was currently working as a part-time school teacher. She needed the health insurance and not working was unfortunately not an option for her. Over the last few years she had been diagnosed with arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Her arthritis had gotten quite severe, and she was often unable to do much around the house.

As we sat there listening to her I noticed a dry raspy sound. I looked to my side and saw that her dog was vomiting on the rug. Our participant paused and looked at her dog. She told us that as he has gotten older he had become incontinent and would often get sick as well. As soon as she said this, the smell made perfect sense. Due to her illness she was unable to clean up after her dog and cats, and over time it had all just been sitting there causing her rug and walls to slowly deteriorate.

I looked at my teammates and sympathy was written all over their faces. They felt for our participant. A few minutes later sympathy turned into empathy as she showed us some pictures hanging on her walls. One of the pictures showed her with some very official-looking people, in a very official-looking place. We were quite surprised when she told us that she used to be involved in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine during the seventies. With this realization of how this woman had not always been in pain and been unable to even get drinks out of her fridge came overwhelming feelings of empathy. She used to be a strong and assertive woman, who had had the misfortune of getting seriously ill.

At that moment it became perfectly clear: this was something that could happen to any one of us.

Our newly gained empathy became a powerful catalyst for design ideas, and for the rest of the project no team discussion happened without at least one mention of this woman.

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One Response to “Dennis’s War Story: Negotiating between sympathy and empathy”

    More than a “lesson learned” to take with us in our work practice; something for us to consider in our life practice as well.

    Comment by Beth 10.18.12 @ 8:41 pm