Office Hours: Empathy Exercises with Jane Fulton Suri

In this Office Hours episode of our Creative Confidence Series, Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO Partner Emeritus and Executive Design Director, chats with IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard and answers questions from our community on design research, empathy, and observation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to this episode on our podcast, and check out their full conversation to hear more about Jane’s experience over her 30-year career at IDEO and in design research.

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SUZANNE GIBBS HOWARD: We got more questions than we could answer with Jane in our Creative Confidence Series webcast, so I wanted to tackle a few more of them afterward. Pushami asks, “How do we tackle the balance with different generations of personnel in an organization while simultaneously keeping that curious and innovative environment? I want to make sure that we have different people from all generations feeling comfortable and actively participating.” Any tips or tricks there?

JANE FULTON SURI: I was taken by that question because it struck me that in an environment with a high degree of diversity, in this case, around generational experience, that's an ideal starting point for exercising some of these ideas about curiosity and empathy—about what the world looks like to somebody who is of a different generation.

I would focus on trying to create opportunities for that kind of discovery and looking at the world through each other's eyes. As an example, you could ask someone to bring in a cherished object and tell a story about why it's important to them.

SUZANNE: We've done so many things here at IDEO to elevate diversity in the workplace. One time we had Barbara Baskin, who was an 80-plus-year-old designer, come in and work with us. One of the things I found so valuable was just sitting with her and pulling in her perspective into any project that we were working on because it was adding greater diversity. I know a lot of people are curious about if anything needs to shift when you're working with millennials, too.

JANE: You're the millennials expert, I think! But my feeling is that doing something tactical, like “tell me about something in your life,” opens the conversation in a way that could work for both generations.

SUZANNE: They're just humans. Everybody is all the same. I love the practice of telling each other stories about our own perspectives.

JANE: Beyond generations, it can extend to other groups of people who are different in some important way. On different sides of the political spectrum even. I remember once advising a church group who were trying to develop a new community center. They were asking me about how could they use a design thinking approach to help them with that.

I began to think about what if you asked the different constituencies in the group not to represent their own point of view, but give them the responsibility to represent somebody else's point of view? That would force a conversation to happen to understand that other point of view. It's like a debating game but where you have to take on an opinion, whether you actually agree with it or not.

SUZANNE: One of my favorite techniques is at the beginning of a project to get everybody to predict what they think the solution is going to be or the big insight. You decide right now on day one what it is, and then fold it up and put it in an envelope and seal it and keep it secret, but then open them up about halfway through the project.

JANE: I love that.

SUZANNE: The practice of doing that makes you aware of your own preconceived notions and assumptions. It makes you a little bit more conscious of them, and then when you bring them out about halfway through when you've got more comfort and more trust, hopefully, amongst the group, you can say, "Oh my goodness, I can't believe I thought this was going to be the answer at the very beginning."

Moving on, we also got a couple of questions from our community about health care. Health care is one of the most challenging highly regulated industries because the repercussions of failure are high-stakes. When you're working in more regulated industries, how do you bring in these designerly sensibilities and the playfulness that we're talking about bringing in to elevate courageous curiosity?

JANE: There is value in starting not on something like lifesaving technology but perhaps the patient waiting room—focusing on an area where there is an opportunity for some kind of enhancement and exploration but that is low risk in terms of the impact. Then start to exercise some of those muscles.

It can be daunting to work on projects where it feels like you can't fail because the current situation is so dire. So start by focusing on areas where you know a small difference can make a big difference.

SUZANNE: If it's financial services, maybe you're looking at the front lines in customer support rather than trying to reinvent the entire financial system. That brings us back to how those small successes start to build that trust and openness to different ways of working.

JANE: Focus on the experience rather than the machinery that's creating the experience. Find a small aspect of the experience to change.

SUZANNE: We have one last question about health care, but I think it's relevant all around. Kate asks, “When you are working with people who are very empathic, like a health care provider who cares an awful lot about their patient, but yet they might be stuck in their own version of empathy and not open to other people's perspectives, are there any situations that you've worked in where you had empathy present, but you still needed to open them up to more diverse kinds of empathy, and what did you do?”

JANE: One thing that comes to mind is the work that we did with schizophrenia and the physicians who were working day-to-day with those teams. In working with IDEO they realized that our engagement with their community was very much about them as people, and they've suddenly realized that they had been thinking about them as patients.

One way is simply to model a different kind of interaction with people. That might be observing somebody else making an inquiry or even just using different tools. I've had lots of success with things that seem quite intractable to ask people to draw their experience. Give them some crayons and see what comes out of that. It's a different form of expression, and it feels unusual to them. It gets them to talk about their experience, and it opens the door to a different kind of interaction that wouldn't happen on a day-to-day basis.

SUZANNE: So often we think about customer-centered design, and that's really important but limits you to thinking of that person just in their relationship to the products and services and companies and brands that you create, not as a whole person. That's why it's so important to ask them to draw, go into their home, ask them about other things in their life besides just what you've created.

JANE: That's a great way of thinking about it and why intuitively I always want to talk about human-centered, not customer-centered or patient-centered or user-centered or passenger-centered. Think human. Get back to the bigger picture because that will open the conversation to new places.

SUZANNE: Thank you for answering a few more questions. We appreciate your time, and we welcome you back any time you want to come and join us.

JANE: Great questions. Thank you!

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