Concepts such as compassion and empathy, especially in the business and professional realm, are often associated with weakness. In our culture, kindness and compassion are commonly viewed as incompatible with and even detrimental to strong and effective leadership, an attitude that trickles down and defines the tone of businesses and organizations. If the idea of factoring in concepts like positive feelings and emotional well-being into product design and management decisions sounds contradictory, the results of this approach might surprise you.

Wharton professor Adam Grant has studied how traits such as compassion, kindness, altruism, and empathy affect leadership and professional performance for high achievers (a group he refers to as givers). Not surprisingly, possessing qualities that make people likable also helps make them influential. So how does this relate to design? It all comes down to influence and trust.

The Future of Design is Compassion

Compassion and Empathy Creates Trust

Good design takes the human’s needs and wants into account and creates an experience — whether digital or in the real world — that connects with their desires and helps them solve a problem. If that sounds like a no-brainer, think of all the products and services that seem to neglect the human’s needs to push an organization’s or even the designer’s personal agenda.

We don’t design products and services for ourselves. We design them for others. And how interactions and experiences make people feel determines how loyal they will ultimately be to a brand, product, or situation. Design that triggers positive emotions, such as making a person laugh instead of spreading fear, is more likely to bring trust. Human beings are wired to respond to stressful emotions and situations in scientific terms by going into fight or flight mode. Exploiting stressful situations and fear may capture some people’s attention at the moment, but it is less likely to engender trust and loyalty in the long term.

How to Design for Compassion

The first step, as always, is to know the audience. Compassion allows us to know what a person loves and fears and then create a helpful and consoling experience rather than exploitative. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of designing a compassionate experience, there are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Stress Reduction: Prioritize physical, psychological, and social well-being over negative emotions or possible stress triggers.
  • Perceived Safety: Improve the user’s sense of emotional well-being and safety by designing an experience that enhances and prioritizes positive emotions.
  • Reduce Danger: What world does the person live in and how can your design help him/her safely navigate it? For example, an app designed to donate money to a homeless person is useful, but taking it a step further to supply information that will help people get the services they need in their immediate vicinity — food, clothes, shelter, medical care, volunteer services — can help save lives.
  • Enhance Dignity and Empowerment: This one is easy. Make people feel good about themselves.

Compassionate Design in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The age of machine intelligence is here, from machine learning, advanced analytics, natural language programming, and deep learning techniques. AI is transforming the look and feel of the interfaces, voice commands are making technology more intuitive to use, and sophisticated patterns recognitions tools are adding powerful visual search and discovery.

 Rather than attempting to program machines with human values like ethics and compassion, designers will need to think strategically and consider potential negative outcomes when programming AI applications. Machine learning algorithms are picking up long-standing race, age, and gender biases concealed within the language patterns. We will need to learn to eliminate inappropriate stereotypes and design unbiased, intuitive, and smart AI programs.

Compassionate Design

Compassionate Design Checklist

There are a number of approaches to designing an effective experience. Experimenting with different methods can help designers identify the one that will work best for their service or product. A few points to keep in mind when creating an enjoyable experience for people:

  • Curiosity
  • Empathy Choosing positive emotions over the negative (humor, playfulness, and hope vs. fear, anger, and hatred)
  • Motivation to do Good
  • Mindfulness

Dedication to solving a problem and enhancing the user’s quality of life goes a long way. As personal technology and machine learning become more and more sophisticated, taking a broader view of the design process to account for the human factor can go a long way.

Olga Weiss


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