Recently, I was talking to a technologist I greatly admire about different approaches to problem solving and product development. His argument (which I strongly agreed with) was that most design, technological and product development in India at the moment is sympathetic in nature and that this is a big problem. It needs to be empathetic.

But what is the difference between a sympathetic approach and an empathetic one? The following excerpt is from an article by George Langelett (who has written extensively about empathy in the work place and using it effectively to manage employees):

Often people confuse empathy with sympathy. The dictionary defines sympathy as the “fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.” Embedded in this definition of sympathy is “commiseration,” which has an element of feeling bad or sorry for the person.

The confusion between sympathy and empathy is unfortunate. The intention of sympathy is to commiserate with the person, in order to try and comfort. By contrast, the goal of empathy is to understand. To empathize is to not only understand the other person’s emotional state or predicament from his or her perspective, but also to comprehend the underlying meaning and causes of one’s feelings and behavior. This misunderstanding of the difference between sympathy and empathy is a serious problem because too often when we feel sorry for a person, we feel better, but the other person most likely will not feel better because no one with dignity wants other people to feel sorry for them.

In the simplest terms, the goal of sympathy is to comfort; the goal of empathy is to understand.

This hilarious video – “It’s not About the Nail” captures this difference well:

Product and technology companies around the world (and especially in India) are following the sympathetic approach:

  • People/ users/ consumers have a problem
  • This is so sad – I feel bad for them
  • I could solve this problem – the solution is so obvious
  • I solved it!
  • I feel so much better now that I have made everyone’s life better

The sympathetic approach brings in personal ego. You want to be the one to solve other people’s problems because it will make you feel better. And while the problem is temporarily solved at a superficial level, its root/ true cause is never discovered.

Sympathetic solutions also often cause much bigger problems down the line. Early settlers who moved to Australia from England in the middle of the 19th century missed certain hobbies and pursuits from back home. One of these was rabbit hunting – Australia had no native rabbit population. An easy and straightforward solution was offered by sympathetic friends: let’s import a few rabbits. So they got about two dozen of them.

They said, “… the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”

This was 1859. Within ten years, even shooting and trapping two million rabbits had no noticeable effect on their population. It is the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal species anywhere in the world and is the single, most significant factor in mass scale species loss (both flora and fauna) in Australia. {Read Bill Bryson’s enchanting “Down Under” for a more detailed account.}

Perhaps the early settlers needed a new hobby.

If we intend to solve product problems of all shapes and sizes in India (and we have a lot of them), we need to have an empathetic development approach – put aside personal ego and truly understand the problem – not just the symptoms, but the causes.

Empathetic vs Sympathetic Product Development
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  • Australian rabbit population case is a bizarre example for sympathetic solutions. It is like viewing the world through the new colored lens one just got.

    Sympathy is a genuine emotion. People donate to earthquake victims out of sympathy. If actions/solutions out of sympathy are harmful, are such donations harmful too?

    To start with, don’t you think the premise that Indian tech companies build solution out of sympathy lacks basis? I wonder what evidence does the proponent gave to support the claim and how you were convinced.

    • I think you are confusing “sympathy” with “sympathetic”. We are specifically talking about problem solving here. People donating to earthquake victims is important. It is the sympathetic response. The empathetic response is what the Japanese do – construct buildings that can withstand regular earthquakes. It is what Nepal should have done knowing that it is on a massive fault line and a big earthquake would wipe it out. Sympathetic solutions are essential but short term. They don’t solve the problem long term. 2006 floods in Bombay were a result of similar thinking.

      Almost every business in India tries to solve problems in a sympathetic way. Look at the recent debate on Net Neutrality and Zero Rating. “People can’t afford the internet. Let’s subsidize it.” This is a sympathetic response. Not an empathetic one. It doesn’t solve the core problem – people need internet. They don’t need free internet.

      On a different note – massive studies have been done on why subsidizing something is bad for the economy on a long term basis.

      The Australian rabbit population example is extreme in nature and just goes to show that certain sympathetic solutions can have long term negative impact. Sympathy is not the problem – sympathetic problem solving definitely is.

      • If recent Zero Rating model is an example for sympathetic solution from Indian companies, I think, we are definitely not on the same page. Zero Rating models, particularly Airtel Zero is a solution to companies not users. As they say, it is analogous to toll free telephony. I can’t see any sympathetic approach here. That is there is no element of ‘commiseration’.

        Companies can’t reach users because user don’t want to or can’t pay to access their services. These companies are willing to pay to get users. So allow companies to pay for access to their services. This a classic case of connecting demand and supply with certain incentive model.

        Are you suggesting that any incorrect solution or any short term solution is a sympathetic solution and all long term solutions are empathetic?

        • Haha! That’s absolutely not what I am suggesting. Most (not all) sympathetic solutions are short term in nature. Many (not all) empathetic solutions are long term in nature.

          I’m glad someone is debating me on this! 🙂

          But do you believe that solutions should not be empathetic in nature? Shouldn’t one get to the root of the problem as opposed to just resolving its superficial effects?

          On Zero Rating:

          Zero Rating is not just a solution by telecos for other companies. It is a way of selling more plans to users (the people) – get more people to change over to them because certain services will be available for free (that is how they plan to market this). Reliance benefits from the partnership with Internet.org and Airtel with its partnership with other companies. It does not matter who subsidizes it (the company or the teleco). The user and the economy loses either way – as competition is suppressed. I don’t want to get into the net neutrality debate. Enough has been said by people far more eloquent than me on this.

          • I do not yet subscribe to this sympathetic and empathetic classification. I believe there are more reliable ways of understanding biases and potential problems in a solution. My interest in this discussion is to learn how you are convinced about this classification.

            I felt our discussion is not about merits or demerits of net neutrality but to see if net neutrality is a solution with certain characteristics. But we can certainly park this here.

            Thanks for patiently responding.

          • Agreed. This is one of many potential ways of looking at problem solving and product building. So far this approach has been of great help to me. But by no stretch is it the only approach.

            In general, I feel one should take a long term view of problems – especially in start-ups.

            There’s nothing better than an honest and open debate. Thanks for playing 😀

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  • LM

    I like the way your express the distinction between sympathetic solutions and empathetic solutions. It seems like one way to generate empathetic solutions would be, then, to include some representative sample of the end-users in the process of design itself. This might enable users to feel more invested as well as co-create the product.

    • One can definitely and should do a lot of user research before beginning work on a project. Running potential users through early prototypes is also a good idea. This is a crucial step in Google’s Design Sprints as well http://www.gv.com/sprint/