Build resilient systems at scale
May 27–29, 2015 • Santa Clara, CA

A practical type of empathy

Indi Young (myself)
10:45am–11:10am Thursday, 05/28/2015
Location: Mission City Ballroom
Average rating: ***..
(3.31, 32 ratings)
Slides:   1-PPTX 

Prerequisite Knowledge

Attendees are all human, and all humans have some degree of history trying to understand how another human is thinking. The key requirement for this talk is the ability to acknowledge that other points of view are as valid as your own, and recognition that you've been in situations yourself where deeper curiosity about the person you were trying to support would have improved your efforts.


The deeper insight derived from developing empathy with the people you support is about the reasoning and guiding principles that run through a person’s mind as he achieves an intent or purpose which is larger than the tools he is using. This deeper insight leads the way to tighter connection and greater detail between an offering and the purposes and intents of the people it is aimed at, whether those people are internal or external to the organization. This deep knowledge also allows organizations to confidently branch away from the competition.

Big data, data visualization, data-driven decisions… organizations hate risk. They love trying to predict your next choice based on what you chose the last time. How many times have you been chased for weeks by ads for shower fixtures because your friend was telling you about her renovation project and she wanted your opinion about finishes? These predictions are based on inferences and assumptions, not on the actual thinking that’s going on. Perhaps only 20% of real-life thinking is represented by the numbers and the predictions.

The only way to find out the other 80% of the story is to take time to listen to people. Explore how each person makes decisions in many similar scenarios — not just the one involving your product or service. Develop a sense of empathy that you can use later in your own decision-making.

If you listen to many people, you’ll start to see patterns in how they reason, react, and guide their decisions. These patterns are what you use to balance big data. It’s pretty simple, but mention to your boss that you want to go listen to how people think, and he’ll assign you three new projects just to avoid that fuzzy qualitative data you might bring back. In an atmosphere where “hard numbers” and “scientific approaches” are held in greatest esteem, you have your work cut out for you to demonstrate that words are not useless fuzzy concepts.

Your best weapon in this struggle? Understand how your bosses think. Understand the reasons numbers are held so dear. Develop empathy with your bosses, then address the underlying goals confidently with your qualitative data.

Photo of Indi Young

Indi Young


Indi Young is an empathy researcher and writer. She helps organizations of any size explore different perspectives, both internal and external, to bring insights that help clarify and reframe the way people make things and the way they work together. She created mental model diagrams, has written two books for Rosenfeld Media, and was a founder of the user experience firm Adaptive Path.