Empathy in Action: the idea of Accompaniment

We talk a lot about “empathy” in the design world. But we don’t have a great deal of clarity about what empathy actually is, and what it costs us as both designers of products, or as human beings.

What is empathy? Nursing theorist Theresa Wiseman argues that empathy involves the following:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be non-judgmental about what you see
  3. To understand another’s feelings
  4. To communicate your understanding of those feelings to others

This notion of empathy goes well beyond what most designers can legitimately claim to do, even with the best of their intentions. Empathy requires us to be alongside someone for the long term.


When we talk about the failure to budget the time or money for user research, what we’re really talking about is the failure to prioritize empathy. We don’t need a large budget to see how others view the world. We don’t need a lot of time to be non-judgmental about that. We don’t need time or a separate budget to understand someone else’s feelings, or even to communicate those feelings to others.

But what we do need is the moral conviction that those things matter. It’s hard to consider that when we do not leave our Ivory Towers, or our industrial chic design studios. We need to be out in the world, alongside the people who use the products we design. How can we know how others see the world? How can we  understand those feelings, in genuine and open ways? We must accompany our customers through their journey. We must be with them.


Dr. Paul Farmer is the founder of Partners in Health, the Haitian based NGO that has tried, for decades, to bring some measure of dignity to the lives of the Haitian people. Farmer describes his approach to helping the people as “accompaniment,” or the act of being there, along with them.

For Farmer, accompaniment is:

to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end.

Farmer argues that to accompany someone is to be there

Accompaniment means committing to helping people with AIDS for the entirety of their lives, or to see someone with terminal cancer through to their death. It means:

Accompaniment is an elastic term, but not too elastic. It is not the same as a paid consultancy or a one-off project to help certain institutions or certain individuals for a little while.

You can see how hard it is for designers, particularly those who work in agencies for clients, to accompany their end customers throughout the design process. For this reason, I argue that user research is more akin to a lifelong mission than it is an entry in a project plan.

User Researchers as Accompagnateurs

I came across this notion of accompaniment in a recent book on social movements, written by a lifelone labor lawyer who has recently become an advocate for prisoners in Supermax prisons. He writes that he is still a lawyer. He doesn’t forget his expertise or leave it aside when he’s accompanying workers or prisoners. What he does do, however, is leaves aside his ego, and his desire to flex his expertise.

This is a lesson for designers, first, in that a designer who accompanies would never add aesthetic flourish just for the sake of it. No, she may hold aesthetic appeal as a priority personally, but would be willing to leave it aside if it were no benefit to her user.

Likewise, many researchers spend a great deal of time adding analytic flourishes to their research, but this pleases no one but themselves. It does nothing for the users, but may (in all honesty) simply make the researcher more analytically grand than her colleagues.

This is precisely what academic researchers are guilty of. This is why the Ivory Tower of academe has failed ordinary people. The human drama of any organization is about status attainment and status maintenance, and the university is no exception to this. But even in the private sector, user researchers are more akin to inspectors than accompagnateurs.

Anyone having seen the results of an overly “scientific” usability test will see this in action. Researchers are not immune to vanity, and they may use statistics or meaningless notions like “time on task” to demonstrate their rigor – without ever once accompanying the user on his journey.

Accompaniment and ethnography

This brings me to ethnography. Ethnographic research holds so much more potential for accompaniment than other forms of research because of its essential nature. Ethnography is, at its heart, about losing one’s own viewpoint and embracing the participant’s. It is about representing the journey that others take, not your own. It is about continually interrograting one’s own position in the world, to understand others.

If you sense a purpose higher than merely “building good technology,” you’re right. My mission as a researcher is to understand the experiences of everyday people, and to communicate those experiences to my engineering and design colleagues. The sociologist C. Wright Mills once argued that there is no such thing as “value-free” sociology, and I would extend that to say there is no such thing as “value-free” design.

All of us who fail to do research because there is “no budget,” or “no time” are incrementally eroding the idea that design is for others, not for us.