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Empathy - why are design leaders obsessed with it?

Deliberately or not we all have prejudices about people. About their behaviours, feelings and way of work. Designers, researchers, leaders and executives - everyone is set to make assumptions, but it is important to make the effort to understand and then create patterns that empower the evolvement of humans and processes.


In this article, I and Lauren Vecchio (Talent Manager @ TDA Creative) focus on Design Leaders’ mindset in the context of their work and teams. We attempt to step in their shoes and understand what’s important for great leadership, what drives productivity and success, what creates thrilling teams and ultimately what contributes to powerful designs and creative processes.


First and foremost, Design Leaders are humans dealing with other humans. Listening to some of the greatest at the FinTech Design Summit a couple of weeks back, I realized that before anything that’s directly related to the industry or specimen of the job, first come the fundamentals of human relations - integrity, honesty, trust, and the star of the show EMPATHY.


Ok, enough intros, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about EMPATHY and why this particular word and concept was mentioned or rather starring in the majority of the talks at the industry conference.


Definition of empathy


Empathy is not sympathy - let’s get this clear from the start.


It is not about agreeing with someone or even feeling for them. Empathy means willingness to understand. Awareness of others’ feelings and how they impact peoples’ perception. Appreciation of another person’s state of mind and experience in the world.


But what does that have to do with leading, navigating, or showing the direction? What does that have to do with Design?!


One of the world’s most recognised leaders, author, and business strategy coach - Simon Sinek - once (many times) said


Empathy—the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.


Big words, so let’s dive deeper into understanding empathy, its impact on teams and and ultimately the end customer.


Understanding empathy


Empathy is being concerned about the human being, not just their output. 


In the FinTech Design Summit, Stephen Gates (Head Design Evangelist at InVision, host of The Crazy One podcast, international keynote speaker, and human-centered design leader), touched upon a very powerful concept regarding this statement, the concept of practical vs. emotional trust and how this has an even wider effect in a ‘remote world’.


‘Practical’ refers to trusting your team to deliver on their tasks. It’s about processes, methodologies, feedback, and etc.

‘Emotional’ is about your team being equally comfortable sharing success and failure. It’s about open conversations, acknowledgment of ‘the human’ in the professional, the true desire to understand.


‘Tools and processes are the foundation, not the solution.’ 

- Stephen Gates fairly said.


Calendars full of ‘catch ups’, daily reporting, productivity tracking, anxious leaders trying to manage everything and fearing missing out on anything - common scenario in 2020. For most companies, the most challenging part of remote work is trusting that their “out of sight” people are working. However, it is not the current situation that created this, it is not a new problem, it’s just newly exposed.


The senior leadership in the Googles, Apples and Microsofts of our world are the most involved in seeking to understand empathy and lead by it because it works. Google it.


Applying empathy

We have the ‘why’. We believe it is a strong, powerful and convincing one. Now onto the how.


Elida Cruz (Vice President Head of Commercial and Small Business Design at Capital One) presented a practical approach to creating a sense of belonging in an organisation. Mindfully reading through it, it brings us to a logical conclusion about its benefits.


Practicing empathy

  • Be present and in the moment
  • Listen actively
  • Be proactive: ask questions and take action
  • Seek first to understand



  • What don’t you know, that you don’t know?
  • What did I learn today?
  • Why not? What would happen if...?
  • What is your WHY?



  • Is authentic
  • Makes a personal and emotional connection
  • Inspires action & compels change
  • Fosters understanding and creates a dialog


That desire to understand each other promotes a culture that seeks to connect externally with customers, which delivers real business impact.


Quoting Stephen Gates one more time, ‘we need to invest in cultural and emotional innovation like we invest in product innovation’ and to justify this statement he also presented a statistic proving that high-trust teams are high performing teams.

empathy article - blog banner website

What is there even to add…


Ah yes, the end customer. Once empathy is part of the organisational culture it moves from the inside out. Wanting to understand and empathise with the customer comes naturally and it doesn’t only bring fulfillment but also results.


And here is not the place to talk about results in numbers or statistics considering we are still in the design context, the measurability of it is questionable and often debated matter. However, logic is always here for us.

  • Listening to your customers & observing their behaviours
  • Understanding why they do what they do (and say)
  • Empathising with them and understanding their state of mind
  • Inviting diverse perspectives to the table
  • Designing journeys that resonate...

… would have a fundamentally positive impact on the end result of any design task and project.


Like any other customer research exercise, empathy involves scanning large sets of data, sorting out what’s noise and what’s essential information. The process is not so different from what a stock analyst does when scanning the market and looking for signals, anomalies and novel patterns that jump out and make him take notice, realizing something important is going on, and building sustainable strategies and approaches based on that.


Back to our take-aways from the FinTech Design Summit, Vidya Nayak (Director of Product Design at Sofi) and Lauren Von Dehsen (Director of Design at Sofi) noted that ‘we have to balance empathy with the idea that we never really know exactly what someone feels.’

We can fire up our mirror neurons and try as hard as we want, but we’ll never truly experience all the threads of complexity and intersectionality that are woven into the tapestry of emotions another person is feeling. 


Okay Debbie Downer… But this isn’t as bleak as it sounds! This is the human quality of identity - it individualizes us and is core to us. And speaking of this precious identity, we can’t deny that it is always at risk in digital products. This is why digital products, especially fintech products, need to create a sense of security for customers in order to foster the most enjoyable, seamless experiences. 


Vidya and Lauren explained that they each channel their own bouts of security breaches to design for customers whose top priority is security...and when dealing with fintech products, this is almost every customer. 


Can you imagine FinTech products that were designed without this level of empathy? Probably not, because no one would use them! This is just one example of how crucial it is to involve empathy in the design process for the sake of the end users.


Final thoughts

Empathy and understanding in leadership are proving time and time again to be pillars for success on so many levels. It is also where we see a crucial difference in how people approach being a leader: being in charge or taking care of people in our charge.


There is a significant business cost when leaders lack empathy. There is also a significant emotional cost when empathy is not part of an organisation’s culture.


Seek to understand.