Ben Holliday

Seniority in design: empathy both ways

Design leadership requires different types of empathy.

We often talk about about the importance of having empathy with end users. These are the people we’re designing for, and the immediate goal for teams working in this way is to understand how people are feeling, as well as what they might be thinking or doing in a given situation.

To design with empathy means being able to imagine, or to start to understand, a situation in a way that could be significantly different from our own perspective or viewpoint. This is why teams invest time in user research, or learning-based activities to better understand the lives and needs of the people they’re designing for.

Empathy at work as well as empathy in our work

Ultimately, the relationships inside our organisations shape the things that we design and deliver. Therefore it’s important that we also think about how other people work and why they make decisions.

Empathy as a design leader always has to go both ways. Not only empathy to design for other people, but empathy to work with other people. In a work situation I think it’s still relatively unusual to invest time in understanding both the decisions and feelings of your CEO or senior leadership team.

Empathy both ways is focussing on end users, and having a deep understanding and empathy for other people who are making decisions and leading.

It’s far easier to have empathy with your immediate colleagues or those in a team that you’re responsible for. But we also need to think about how the organisations we’re part of are being led if we want to lead design in an effective way to influence change.

We need to have empathy with our leaders, Chief Executives, and board members to succeed. Empathy is how we can start to understand decisions, motivations and even the politics that we don’t agree with in the places where we work. If we’re not careful, relationships that determine how design is led in an organisation will depend more on traditional power dynamics and hierarchy than empathy.

Empathy is a compass. We can use it to shape our our design decisions and the intent behind our work. It can also shape how we understand, influence and work as part of of an organisation. It can help us to lead design as we develop a better understanding of business level decisions, including the layers of complexity, trade-offs and difficult constraints that we might not have previously known about or considered.

Questions to consider for design leaders:

  • Do I have enough empathy for the people I work with, as well as the people that I design for?
  • Have I taken enough time to consider what senior leaders are thinking and feeling, in order to help me understand the things that they’re doing, or the decisions that they’re making?

This blog is part of a short series following my original post about seniority in design.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.