Your Conference Needs To Adopt Design Empathy Practices

Practice empathy

The group kept returning to this word.

I thought we were finished discussing all of its nuances and implications. Then another small group would underscore its importance.

It’s as if this word was a floating bobber in a lake constantly tossed around due to wind and waves. It wouldn’t disappear. Just when we thought no one would mention the word again, its concept and its real meaning jumped back to the center stage.

And The Word Is…

Recently, my colleague, Sarah Michel, and I spent a couple days facilitating a retreat for the leaders of a large not-for-profit health care organization.

We were to focus on creating a culture of trust, emotional intelligence and high performance teams. We shared with them about the research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and biology of the brain regarding corporate cultures, trust and emotional intelligence.

One word, one powerful word that most organizations avoid, kept creeping into our discussions: empathy.

Ironically, these medical professionals practice empathy on daily basis with their patients. However, they realized that they were not practicing empathy with their teams, employees, colleagues, stakeholders and partners.

The Implications Of Using Or Not Using Empathy On The Job

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understanding of, and sensitivity to another person’s feelings and thoughts without having had the same experience.

We normally think of demonstrating empathy when someone is in need.

Rarely have we talked about the need for businesses and their employees to embrace and practice empathy. That’s too touchy-feely! Squishy-mushy! A Kumbaya, let’s hold hands moment.

And most of us prefer to have emotional-free business zones.

However, an organization without empathy is like a tin man without a heart, a lion without courage, a scarecrow without a brain and a lost Dorothy without a home.

Even further, it’s not enough to have empathy for our customers. It starts by our employers, coworkers and leaders showing empathy to each other. Once it’s practiced inside the organization, it is more likely that our teams will practice empathy externally with our customers.

Enter Design Empathy

Consider the following:

In today’s global marketplace marked with accelerated change, organizations are being asked to design for increasing diverse cultures, environments, time periods and users. Too often, we try to design programs and services based on our own experiences, history and thoughts. Rarely do we start with the customer first and ask lots of questions.

For this reason, it’s crucial that our team members intentionally work at understanding the experiences of our clients and customers. And for understanding the experiences of each other. That’s going to be a new process for many of them.

It’s no longer enough for a conference to have a call for speaker proposals to select speakers and topics. We’ve got to understand the most pressing issues that our target customers face. We’ve got to walk in their shoes to identify their current needs and help them find solutions.

Observing, Inquiring And Reflecting

Reflecting on the experiences our customers are having, and mentally walking in their shoes, is a critical step in designing the right products and services. Gaining insights from observation, questioning and reflection is important if we want to inform and inspire our decision-making process.

This is where design empathy comes into play—even for businesses and much more so for conferences. For example, we can no longer afford to plan education and content a year in advance of the conference. That’s not responsive to our attendees’ needs.

To paraphrase Tim Brown, IDEO CEO:

“(Design Empathy) is a mental habit that needs to be practiced daily by all of those involved in our organizations. It is also a cultural value that serves as the foundation to the concepts, ideas, products, services, etc. that our teams develop, market and share. And it should highlight both innovation and responsiveness to actual customers’ needs and desires.”

Ultimately, design empathy has tremendous value and potential for businesses, organizations and conferences. It’s one of the keys to success in the 21st Century.

Defining Design Empathy

Design empathy draws upon people’s real world experiences to address modern challenges.

When organizations allow a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them—and transform their work, their teams and even their organization at large—they unlock the creative capacity for innovation.
~ IDEO’s Empathy On The Edge

In human centered design, people are first, not the product or service. Frequently, we put the product in the center of the development process. Usually, in conference planning, we put logistics in the center of the development process.

In human centered design, we put people in the center of the process. This is where design empathy blossoms.

Remarkable things can happen when empathy for others plays a key role in problem solving.
~ IDEO’s Empathy On The Edge

We’ve got to move to putting people, our paid registrants, at the center of the conference design planning process. We’ve got to embrace conference design empathy.

Hat Tips: IDEO’s Empathy On Edge white paper.

Coming next: More on practical steps at implementing design empathy for conferences.

Why are so many of our conference experiences devoid of empathy? How can we convince meeting planners to practice design empathy?

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