The Empathetic Mindset

For any engineer reading this, I’m pretty sure at some point in you career, someone has told you that engineers alone are not able to make great products. And I can see they are probably right.

Stereotypical engineers are known to create stuff not suitable for human consumption. Typically, those products either pack a stellar amount of features that are hidden behind convoluted interfaces, or boast some features that only interest like-minded people of the engineers themselves.

But why is that?

Because by nature, humans tend to think for themselves. One’s judgements are always based on his own past experience. When you think about how a certain product feature should work, you’ll naturally search your brain looking for pleasant situations you’ve once had using similar products. For an engineer, he’ll recollect memories with his own favorite products. And what’s the most important and beloved to an engineer? Tools. Tools are what defines an engineer. Therefore, products designed and created by engineers tend to be just like tools – form follows function.

But the problem is, this also means humans are limited by their own experiences. One cannot see beyond himself. One’s own memory is the whole collection from which he searches for ideas. In the case there’s no perfect match, he picks the closest thing possible. For an engineer, who almost always deals with tools, tends to draw references from his favorite tools no matter how the product relates to tools. That’s his best judgement nevertheless.

This gives rise to the common conception that engineers are often not the best product designers. However, based on the facts above, this statement is no more accurate than saying that a inexperienced non-engineer often doesn’t come up with the best product ideas. Typical engineers suck at product design because products are not always meant to be used by engineers themselves. And engineers have limited experience using products not interested to themselves. The same applies to non-engineers when the product is conceived to be used by other kinds of people than themselves. For example, when a non-gamer product designer works on a product targeting to gamers.

So the real question here is not that whether it’s an engineer or not, but that whether one can think on behalf of other people, the target users of the product. That is, to think empathetically.

Thinking empathetically is a conscious process. It’s like self-discipline. It’s what one voluntarily applies to oneself, resisting natural tendency. It not only requires one to actively seek outside of his own experience, but also demands one to greatly expand his experience by trying out many new things, new roles, and new ways of thinking. If you are a driver, try  the passenger’s seat. Only then will you understand what a passenger wants. Just like self-discipline, thinking empathetically is hard. That’s why great products are not common. And innovative products are even more rare.

The empathetic mindset applies not only to engineers but to non-engineers as well. I reckon that it’s the single most important factor that could lead to a great product. And in fact, I believe if engineers can learn to think empathically, they are more likely to become a great product designer than others. Why? Because being able to understand the various details and limitations how a product is built and works can help one form better judgement about how to best put it to work, especially when tradeoffs are necessary. If a certain feature for an iPhone app is so CPU-intensive that it impacts battery life, it’s the engineer who knows it the best. And it’s the engineer that can think of a reasonable alternative as a better design. On the other hand, a non-engineer product designer often needs to understand the engineering details of a product in order to do the same, while it’s probably harder.

It’s not that engineers can’t make great products. It’s people without empathetic thinking who can’t. This has nothing to do with being an engineer or not. Once you learn to apply this mindset to yourself vigorously, everything else will follow.

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