Fred Leichter on Empathy

After nearly a decade in San Francisco my general impression of the start-up culture is a bunch of 20-something Stanford grads designing exclusively for other 20-something Stanford grads. Fred Leichter’s presentation on Fidelity Investment’s work with the Stanford helped to change that assessment. He talked about teaching people to listen.

I enjoyed his framing of “empathy work” as a way to understand the activities that make up design research. Engendering empathy is one of the most important outcomes of field work. It’s also a great argument for the importance of co-design activities with clients. That’s why integrating external research is so tricky.

He advocates visiting established service cultures as a way to build an appreciation for the problems that surround service design. For example, he mentioned visiting fire departments, airports and cemeteries as a way of raising questions that aren’t immediately superseded by a rush to identify the answers.

I still think that this type of work is very much the exception rather than the rule when it comes to Bay Area design culture, but it’s nice to see Stanford students focusing on audiences that present an empathy challenge.

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