Empathetic vs Sympathetic Product Development

Recently, I was talking to a technologist I greatly admire about different approaches to problem-solving and product development. His argument (which I strongly agreed with) was that most design, technological and product development in India at the moment is sympathetic in nature and that this is a big problem. It needs to be empathetic.

But what is the difference between a sympathetic approach and an empathetic one? The following excerpt is from an article by George Langelett (who has written extensively about empathy in the workplace and using it effectively to manage employees):

Often people confuse empathy with sympathy. The dictionary defines sympathy as the “fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.” Embedded in this definition of sympathy is “commiseration,” which has an element of feeling bad or sorry for the person.

The confusion between sympathy and empathy is unfortunate. The intention of sympathy is to commiserate with the person, in order to try and comfort. By contrast, the goal of empathy is to understand. To empathize is to not only understand the other person’s emotional state or predicament from his or her perspective, but also to comprehend the underlying meaning and causes of one’s feelings and behavior. This misunderstanding of the difference between sympathy and empathy is a serious problem because too often when we feel sorry for a person, we feel better, but the other person most likely will not feel better because no one with dignity wants other people to feel sorry for them.

In the simplest terms, the goal of sympathy is to comfort; the goal of empathy is to understand.

This hilarious video – “It’s not About the Nail” captures this difference well:

Product and technology companies around the world (and especially in India) are following the sympathetic approach:

  • People/ users/ consumers have a problem
  • This is so sad – I feel bad for them
  • I could solve this problem – the solution is so obvious
  • I solved it!
  • I feel so much better now that I have made everyone’s life better

The sympathetic approach brings in personal ego. You want to be the one to solve other people’s problems because it will make you feel better. And while the problem is temporarily solved at a superficial level, its root/ true cause is never discovered.

Sympathetic solutions also often cause much bigger problems down the line. Early settlers who moved to Australia from England in the middle of the 19th century missed certain hobbies and pursuits from back home. One of these was rabbit hunting – Australia had no native rabbit population. An easy and straightforward solution was offered by sympathetic friends: let’s import a few rabbits. So they got about two dozen of them.

They said, “… the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”

This was 1859. Within ten years, even shooting and trapping two million rabbits had no noticeable effect on their population. It is the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal species anywhere in the world and is the single, most significant factor in mass scale species loss (both flora and fauna) in Australia. {Read Bill Bryson’s enchanting “Down Under” for a more detailed account.}

Perhaps the early settlers needed a new hobby.

If we intend to solve product problems of all shapes and sizes in India (and we have a lot of them), we need to have an empathetic development approach – put aside personal ego and truly understand the problem – not just the symptoms, but the causes.

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