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Without empathy, there is no solution
What are the benefits of populism? That was the question posed to 70 UXers, designers, and design thinkers at last Thursday’s Design Against Populism event organized by UXPA — DC Chapter and OpenIDEO DC Chapter.

I came to this event with the expectation that we would spend the evening picking apart all the things that make populism a threat to our democracy, and brainstorming ways that we could work to combat it. So, I was initially somewhat resistant to working through this question.
The traumatic events that occurred in Charlottesville the previous weekend were still too raw for me. My husband and I lived in Charlottesville, just a couple blocks from Emancipation Park, for three years while he pursued a graduate degree from the University of Virginia.

We still have many friends there and we visit often. It’s a place I love and hold dear, so lately my default reaction to all things resembling populism is a visceral feeling of opposition and defensiveness. I was certainly not alone among the event’s participants, and the organizers made a point to acknowledge the tragedy in Charlottesville by beginning the workshop with a moment of silence for those who lost their lives following the Unite the Right protest.
At first, my group and I really struggled to think of a single benefit to populism that we could add to the list of sticky notes staring back at us. But, once we put down our defensive shields, we realized that for those who feel drawn to populist ideology, the benefits are numerous.

We began to empathize with the coal miner who feels left behind by the global economy, and with the rural, high-school educated Americans who feel alienated by “bi-coastal elites,” and even with the white southerners who feel under attack as they see monuments to confederate generals being removed from public spaces. We started to recognize that populist movements have given these groups a voice when they felt that they didn’t have one. Populism has promised them economic security, self-preservation, and safety from groups of people they feel threatened by. It has brought simplicity — a black/white, us versus them mentality — to complex issues.
Empathy has the power to uncover causes and solutions to even the most divisive and emotionally-charged challenges.
How Might We?
Once you begin to add up all these benefits, it’s easy to understand why populism appeals to certain segments of our society. As soon as we acknowledged these facts, we were able to turn those insights into How Might We questions. We wondered, how might we give people hope, agency, and economic opportunities? How might we help people overcome their fear of diversity? How might we have productive dialogues? How might we teach people empathy?

Unfortunately, our time ran out after we worked through our How Might We questions. I’m sorry to disappoint, but this article does not offer any solutions to populism. Populism is perhaps the most challenging, complex, and emotionally-charged issue facing the United States and the world today. Obviously, we knew we weren’t going to resolve it in a two-hour design thinking workshop.
Empathy Solves Problems
According to the event organizers, the long-term goal of this event series is “to combat an ‘us versus them’ mentality and encourage more nuanced thinking and open dialogue in our society.” My big take-away from the first part of the series, however, was that empathy is a much more powerful problem-solving tool than I ever realized. As a user experience researcher with a background in the arts and museums, I’m no stranger to empathy. We talk about empathy all the time in museums, and I exercise empathy every day in my user research. As much as I believed in the importance of empathy, I’m not sure I previously understood that empathy has the power uncover causes and solutions to even the most divisive and emotionally-charged challenges.

In my work as a user researcher, empathy has always come easy to me. It’s not difficult for me to identify with someone who is frustrated by an illogical website navigation or flaws in a mobile app. But, when I was asked to empathize with populists like those we saw in Charlottesville, I had a really hard time. I didn’t want to understand those people or make excuses for their ideology and behavior, but by the end of the night I felt like I had a much better understanding of their perspectives and motivations. I felt better prepared to have productive conversations with the people in my own life whose political views I disagree with. That’s the power of empathy.
Empathy is more than a warm and fuzzy word that helps you see the world from someone else’s perspective, it’s a problem-solving tool that enables the best companies achieve their business goals.
Why Empathy Matters
Empathy is more than a warm and fuzzy word that helps you see the world from someone else’s perspective, it’s a problem-solving tool that enables the best companies to achieve their business goals. By investing in user research, companies discover what their customers care about, what they love, what they hate, what keeps them up at night. Through empathy-building exercises, a skilled researcher can uncover opportunities for businesses to meet their customers’ spoken and un-spoken needs. Customers already have all the answers to your business problems, you just have to know which questions to ask.

Design Against Populism was a timely and important reminder of the critical role empathy plays in problem-solving. Whether the problem is the usability of your company’s digital product or a dangerous political ideology that threatens the very core of democratic society, empathy is key. And without empathy, we can never get to a real solution.
This article is inspired by Nicole Riesenberger and her article in Medium: Without Empathy, There Is No Solution
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