View from the Inside: Reflecting on Empathy and Equity

Continuing the View from the Inside series, we reflect on the first two weeks of the Design Thinking Experience Program, in which we discussed the Innovation Hub’s focus on empathy- and equity-based design.

In this post, we hear from Sharon Lam, Data Analysis Assistant. Sharon worked in education after completing Bachelor’s degrees in English, History, and Education, then started a Master of Information degree in User Experience Design and Information Systems and Design. This is her first year with the Innovation Hub.

Sharon Lam, Data Analysis Assistant

During the first two weeks at the Innovation Hub, we spent a lot of time on reflection. This may seem counter-intuitive since we are just starting our projects, but it actually makes a lot of sense. By beginning with reflection, we recognize that we each bring a lot to any starting point and that there is a lot of context to every situation. There is no truly blank slate. This is both encouraging and humbling. On the one hand, we bring value based on the unique perspective formed from our past experiences; on the other hand, how we see and interpret our research is limited by the degree to which we can understand what is outside of our realm of experience—in short, our ability to empathize. 

The Innovation Hub focuses on empathy research. We want to design with rather than for people. We primarily spend our time understanding the situation rather than generating and testing ideas. Again, this seems counter-intuitive. Aren’t innovation and design ultimately about ideas for solutions? Although I am still new to the Innovation Hub, I think at least part of the reason is our position in the university. We work with other divisions and faculties on projects that they own. Functionally, it makes sense for us to pour effort into understanding a problem space deeply and providing insights to our partners. More importantly, in a city (and indeed a world) attracted to immediacy and efficiency, practising the effort-intensive and time-consuming acts of listening, conversing, and fostering understanding based on empathy is a counter-cultural mindset. We hope to make the process a part of the solution by ensuring that our participants gain something from participating in our projects. We affirm that their individual contribution brings something to the table, just as our interpretation of their collective feedback brings something to the table. Understanding the problem does not enable the real design work. Understanding the problem is real design work.

In answering the reflective questions “Who am I?”, “What am I bringing to the table?”, and “How might my own experiences impact the way I look at the data?”, we also need to think about our explicit and implicit biases. What attitudes and beliefs do I hold? Further, in what ways might I unconsciously organize my thoughts and pattern my behaviour? When I consider these questions, my impulse is to stop thinking, because my own limitations are glaring! It is as if my autonomy and independent thinking are a sham. But the point of considering our own biases is not to dwell on our imperfections. Rather, it is an exercise in reflexivity: as designers and analysts, we should be self-aware about our data collection and interpretation process and the biases in it. We should also consider, perhaps uncomfortably, what systemic oppression or inequity exists in that space. We may find that we are part of the problem, but the key is that we can always change the system and our mindsets. Knowing what or how to change starts with reflection.

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