Skip to content

Being Empathetic (It’s Not About You)

A bumper sticker for Design Thinking might read “It’s not about you” to unscore the point that no one cares what you think.

Too bad lots of people don’t think so.

It always reminds me a line from the 1988 movie Beaches when Bette Midler’s character says: ‘But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?’

No One Cares What The Designer Thinks

As my first (and best) design professor explained: As a designer, no one cares about your opinion. The only opinion you want is the person you’re designing for. 

Or perhaps an even better piece of advice: Don’t talk in sentences. Only talk in questions … and listen!

Did I remember those quotes when I started my career? Oh no, I drank the Kool-Aid and fell into the lazy marketing trap of believing our job was to make people want things.

  • I led creative sessions to help a well-known soup brand sell its traditional products to single people. The client said: “It’s a big untapped market for us!” Never mind the fact this audience didn’t regualrly enjoy soup.
  • We tried to convince home cooks they needed a well-known spice brand in dishes they didn’t even know existed. “Use turmeric!” the client said, even though most people heard the word “tarmac” and were very confused.
  • The team wanted to promote to caregivers all of the profitable reasons why a new schizophrenia drug by well-known pharma company was perfect for their loved ones. The fact that most caregivers were sometimes physically wrestling with their loved ones was too much information for our client.

No surprise, every campaign failed. Until a chance meeting with my former mentor who – once again – changed how I thought about my work solving our client’s problems.

Rather than ‘making people want things,’ try ‘making things people want.’


With that shocking obviousness, it changed how my team looked at the problem. First, we shouldn’t define the problem because it wasn’t our problem. In some cases, we didn’t even realise it was a problem, or we mis-interpreted what the problem meant to them.

We found the best preparation was thinking of all the things we didn’t know. We focused our initial attention on coming up with questions, not formalising our opinions or assumptions. When we talked to actual customers (which was often), we stopped our internal voice judging what they were telling us and zeroed in on what they were trying to tell us.

You know what’s funny? Listening actually isn’t hard when you start realising it’s not about you!

True Design Thinking Demands Empathy of the End User

As I’ve mentioned before, Design Thinking does not exist without empathy. It’s not about how many widgets you can sell to unsuspecting consumers, but learning to ask about the problem from their point of view. Once you stop making assumptions, new ideas can flow fairly easily.

  • Our soup brand asked single women in the work place how and what they ate for lunch, and why. And by the way, tell us why you dislike soup. (Most women told us they didn’t like their colleagues in the next cubicle hearing them “slurp.”)
  • The spices company listened to home chefs talk about their cooking fantasies. ONe of the things our client learnt was that most cooks don’t cook because of “turmeric,” but they might with biryani.
  • Cargivers were remarkably open about the physical and emotional trauma of caring for someone with schizophrenia, even asking the brand how they’d suggest they engage with their doctors.

Everything changes when you …

  • Leave behind your assumptions of what you think you know
  • Put away your corporate-speak messages
  • Look past the biased research and discuss the issues with real people
  • Ask them what they’d like.  (My new favourite phrase became:  “If we could give you a magic wand, what would you create for yourself to fix the problem?”)

Once the realisation kicks in that it’s not about you, you will open side the door of creativity.

How have you managed to keep your opinions, aaumptions and bias at arms-length? Please add your comments below!

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Being Empathetic (It’s Not About You)