Solving Problems With Empathy

By Yong Vin Kit

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As we all know, Design Thinking (or DT as we like to call it) is a unique approach to solving problems.

DT solves problems with people in mind, which means we try to empathise the problems people we’re trying to help are facing before we try tinkering a solution.

Another way of putting it is that we need to understand what our stakeholders need before we actually try to help them.

Knowing Your Stakeholders

Take Uber for example. Before the age of ride-hailing apps, taking a cab can be daunting experience, if there’s one where and when you need it to start with.

That was what their founders famously found out, and realising that it’s what all cab users would face, they decided to do something about it.

Uber got around all those problems by creating an app that allows users to book their own cabs anytime they want it via a push of a button.

In short, the guys at Uber found their customers’ pain points, problem solvers can create solutions that have long-lasting impact on users and society as a whole.

Understanding the problems faced by the people you’re trying to help, whether it’s through listening to them or putting yourself in their shoes, helps you shape your own solution to their problem.

Shifting Paradigms

Besides bringing you closer to other people, empathy can change the way you see a problem.

We often forget “What’s the real issue here? Why am I trying to here to find a solution?” before diving in to find that solution. And we often end up wasting time and resources proposing ideas that do little to solve the issues of people who need help.

While in Nepal, Stanford University student Linus Liang was trying to understand why premature birth was a real serious problem.

His team thought of creating a cheaper incubator for hospitals – until he realised that many hospitals were well equipped… but empty.

To their surprise, the team realised that the problem wasn’t because Nepal didn’t have enough incubators, but that the distance between homes and hospitals was too far.

This was a paradigm shift that led to the development of the Embrace Baby Warmer – a device that would keep a newborn warm until he gets to an incubator.

Empathy helps to frame the problem from a users’ perspective. Just imagine how much time it would have taken the Stanford team, policymakers and health experts to overcome Nepal’s high newborn mortality rate if they continued framing the problem the same way?

“Humanising” the Problem

Empathy reminds us that there’s just one bottom-line on why they’re looking to solve a problem – helping people.

Malaria kills nearly 500,000 people each year in Africa. Yet, due to a lack of understanding of the issues faced by locals, Unicef-distributed mosquito nets found their way to being used as fishing nets as the need for gathering food was more urgently needed.

Unicef in Africa needed a solution, and fast. In response, it started the U-Report, a two-way messaging platform communicates life-saving info with local communities and solicits feedback.

Since then, the program has helped to reduce misuse of mosquito nets in communities where they are being distributed.

Getting users involved in the problem solving process helps reduce miscommunication and misunderstandings. The first step towards realizing the need for it is, of course, empathy.

Bottom-line: Putting People First

In a rapidly changing world, problems that are constantly evolving need solutions that can re-adapt themselves all the time.

That’s why problem solvers (and design thinkers) need to remind themselves what’s the bottom line – helping the people who need it; and empathy opens the door to understanding that need.

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