The Applied Empathy Framework

Empathic design is an important part of an overall design thinking approach to designing better libraries. It’s all about understanding your users from their perspective – putting yourself in their shoes so to speak – as a way of rethinking how your library could deliver better products and services. If you want to explore the empathic design concept in greater depth I recommend a three-part series by Dirk Knemeyer on applied empathy. He describes it as a “design framework for meeting human needs and desires”. Part one of the series focuses on applying empathy to the design process and provides an introduction to the framework. Part two of the series explains the three dimensions of human behavior and outlines specific needs and desires to which products and services can be designed. Part three of the series shows how the framework can be put to practical use.

To understand the framework you first need to become familiar with the five states of being. About them Knemeyer says they:

reflect the increasing relationship between the power and importance of needs at each level and the degree of personal commitment and desire each level engenders toward a product or user experience. That is to say, even those who have not yet realized their lowest-level needs can identify the value and impact of, as well as tacitly desire, the highest-level states of being.

The five states of being are participation, engagement, productivity, happiness and well-being. While understanding the five states of being is important to appreciating the framework, Knemeyer’s three dimensions of human behavior are critical to the framework. The dimensions are the analytical, the physical and the emotional. Reading about the dimensions added to my thinking about how the overall library experiences need to be a totality of experiences rather than isolated ones. Great library user experiences need to be more than just an isolated experience at one desk or one person; they need to be delivered across the organization, not unlike reaching people on all three dimensions. All three are explained in greater detail in part two, where you can find a visual representation of these ideas, but of them Knemeyer writes:

Rather than simply considering a product and how customers will use it, be conscious of the fact that people ultimately need each of their analytical, emotional, and physical needs met…If we are cognizant of this and actively consider all three when planning our products, marketing, and experiences, we are much more likely to enjoy design success.

So how might a library experience meet the user’s needs on the analytical, physical and emotional levels? Meeting analytical needs is perfect for the library because it is all about the mind. Everything from a good book, a featured speaker, getting help with research and even getting involved in games can help to meet analytical needs and desires. The physical and emotional needs are a bit more challenging. Library activities are hardly physical, unless you count carrying books and bound volumes to the photocopier or circulation desk. But I suspect that most folks know that library work is a cerebral endeavor and don’t mistake it for a fitness activity. I’m on the border for emotional needs. For some readers, libraries can take on an almost spiritual quality. FInding the just right book or having a social moment can certainly elicit emotion in library users.

I’ll be thinking more about this and how the library experience could meet all three human dimensions of human behavior. Knemeyer’s ideas on applied empathy are helpful to me in seeing there is more to empathic design than just putting yourself in the place of the user. There are multiple dimensions in which an empathic understanding can develop. For now I’ve got to tackle a pile of good user experience articles that I’ve been meaning to read. More on that later.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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