Sympathy vs Empathy

Posted on Tue 18 August 2015 in Life • 2 min read

In the book, Subject to Change1, authors explain the concepts of sympathy and empathy very well. It got me into a series of thoughts.

Let me quote (emphasis is mine).

Sympathy has two common uses, neither of which is appropriate in design. In the first sense, sympathy means something akin to pity. This maintains a distance between you and the other person or group and doesn’t necessitate respect… The other sense of sympathy is an actual shared experience or feeling, as in people whose situations are nearly identical. This form of sympathy removes objectivity…

It is very interesting. My observation suggests we take a path of zero questions when that sense of pity envelops us. Either we end up saying, “Ah, how unfair…” and then forget the situation; or “Oh boy, I gotta fix it!” and immediately jump to solve it.

I’ve done it many times. That emotion of how the user feels is too strong to omit actual facts. May be the business needs something else, or there could be a better solution. Decisions get driven by emotions, and objectivity is out of the door. Bad.

Worse, we bring in our preconceived notions in here as well. User says this doesn’t work, we shout out loud, “it must extensibility..” (the subjective thought) that’s the root cause. We didn’t even stop a moment to question if user actually thought about extensibility. Huh!

By contrast, empathy is an understanding of a person or group’s subjective experience by sharing that experience vicariously. Sharing an experience avoids the distance of pity while vicariousness maintains an observer’s level of objectivity… Finding empathy helps us grasp the mechanisms that drive behavior, as opposed to just the external actions.

How do I do this? If I get passionately in the shoes of the user, I can get biased. If I don’t, I will end up building an aeroplane because my user wanted to go to a vegetable market 2 miles away faster!

Question. And validate. May be that’s the way. Until at least, I can stay detached and intuitively determine the user’s actions.


  1. http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0596516835