Empathy engineering

The best way to be practical and usable is to completely understand your customer.


As an engineer, this one hurt. A study published in the European Journal of Engineering Education (Volume 37, Issue 5, 2012) found that engineering students scored lower than healthcare students (doctors, nurses) in questionnaires designed to reveal such traits as imagination, caring, and the ability to see things from another person’s point of view. That’s good for us as patients, but what can we do as engineers to change that? 

Why is empathy even important? After all, one can rationalize that getting things right is more important than someone’s feelings. Rather than debate that, it is interesting to see how a doctor’s training emphasizes getting to know the patient as a critical part of diagnosing. If you’re reading this Career Smart column, clearly you’re interested in insights for the nontechnical side of your career, so let’s delve into this for a moment. 

There’s a phrase, “Doing the right things versus doing things right,” which is a common management perspective that emphasizes that just doing things correctly does not keep an organization viable—Kodak film versus digital photography comes to mind. The challenge to management is to make sure the right things are done to thrive in the future. Engineers have to focus on doing things correctly, obviously, so bridges don’t fall down and airplanes stay in the air. But doing things correctly while doing the right things is a different challenge, one that perhaps points to the essence of the study—engineering empathy. How can you achieve that? 

Consider looking at the actual work of engineering as you always have—doing things correctly—but adding this twist. Think of it as a binary switch: Concertedly switch your focus on doing engineering correctly to a mode in which you apply your analytical talents to other people and where they’re coming from. That can be an initial step toward increasing your empathy. 

Why? An engineer who can get inside the heads of customers and others who use what that engineer produces is incredibly valuable. While not an engineer, Steve Jobs comes to mind. He was not particularly known for his empathy. But he clearly developed an almost unprecedented influence on how we use technology. He developed a certainty of what Apple should do based on thoroughly understanding how we as consumers, work, live, and could use technology. Then he led Apple’s engineers in embedding that empathy in their design and development program. 

The best way for you to leverage your skills, training, and talent is to direct them in a way that is practical and usable; the best way to be practical and usable is to completely understand your audience/customers.

Take it as a challenge not to be one of the statistics in that empathy study. Developing and using your empathy is not a compromise of your skills for some soft, mushy, right-brain stuff but instead the very fodder you need to be as effective an engineer as possible. 

There are many different engineering disciplines—think of this skill as empathy engineering and see what happens.

Empathetic engineering tips:

  • Ask questions of others if you don’t know where to start. A favorite customer question that opens many doors and insights is, “What’s your biggest challenge/problem?” Or posed another way, “What keeps you up at night?” Then, listen very carefully and actively to what they say.
  • Sharpen your presentation skills by taking every chance you can to speak publicly in a venue that gives you honest feedback. Toastmasters International is a great example of an organization that can help you with that.
  • Write, write, and keep on writing. It forces you to articulate clearly, which helps your communication skills immeasurably. 

John Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on strategic planning and product-to-solutions business model transitions. He has a BSME and Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Illinois. He was a presenter at the 2012 Career Smart Engineers Conference

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