Freelance Files: Practicing Empathy


I’ve been reading this book lately called Creative Confidence by Tom Kelly and David Kelly, two brothers both wildly successful designers at IDEO as well as published authors and founders of the successful D.School. The book is amazing and definitely will end up with a full review on from the bookshelf, but I wanted to take a second to talk about one concept that they talk about in the spark chapter and that’s empathy.

What is empathy? well it’s the ability to relate to other people’s feelings or experiences. It’s become another coined phrase, but I’m realizing more than ever that being a designer means practicing empathy on a daily basis. I used to think it just mattered to practice empathy with the-end user or the customer. You can’t design for an audience you don’t understand, or at the very least, you can’t do it well. But then I realized that the empathy starts with the client.

I’ve been struggling with the way I talk to my clients for a long time. It feels like it was so much easier in the beginning when I didn’t know what I was doing. Now through a lot of trial and error, I know that there are specific answers I need to provide my best professional suggestions and I would try to write up every question I could possibly think of, and ask them all on the initial phone call and then go away and do my thing and come back with sketches, with hopefully a “winner”.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that while I might have been getting answers, they weren’t organic and I wasn’t really connecting with my clients. Practicing true empathy means sometimes asking unrelated questions or “chit chatting” and getting to know the client before even asking a single question about the job. And that’s hard. Especially when most clients want to jump the gun to the end. They want to tell you exactly what they are looking for and often times, they don’t practice empathy for their customers themselves, which means they are telling me what they think they need to be successful.

I don’t really have any solid answers yet on how to practice empathy with clients, but I have some thoughts on how I will move forward in the future:

1) Meeting in person v.s over the phone
I’ve actually had clients all over the country, not just my home town, which has been challenging to work around different time zones. I’ve always made sure to handle as many of the initial meetings over the phone, but I’d like to at the very least work on meeting any local clients in person to get an even better sense of them and establish a better rapport.

2) Asking “why” more
This one could get annoying, but it’s actually one tip from the book. They said to ask “why” to the first five questions. This is to get the client to dig deep and give meaningful answers. Usually there are layers to a problem, something that the client might not completely be aware of why they need what they think they need. It’s worth a try as long as you don’t sound like an obnoxious 3-year-old.

3) Shutting up and letting them talk
Often as a designer, I have felt like I needed to control the conversation and steer it in the right direction to get the answers I need. What’ve I’ve realized though is that when you’re fishing for specific answers, you lose out on connecting with your client by letting the conversation meander organically. Second, I’ve always felt pressure to have all the answers up front and offer insight over the phone like “yeah we can definitely do that” or “I think that’s a great idea”. This has led to a lot of me talking, instead of just asking more questions and letting the client talk.

4) Isolating important bits and asking the client to elaborate.
To second number four, sometimes clients can gloss over something that sounds really important. I usually say something like”

“you mentioned that you’d really like the color pink in the website. Can you elaborate on why pink is an important color for you?

Sometimes asking them to elaborate makes the client uncomfortable, because they may not readily have the answer but its important to not leave any stone un turned. If they say “I don’t know”, then re-phrase the question until you get a valuable answer. “Well is pink an important part in your branding? Does it symbolize something for your company?”

5) Pin pointing the pain point and asking the client to confirm.
This is crucial. Sometimes the “problem” is pretty straight forward: The client is starting a business and needs an identity and a website. It’s your job to dig deeper and ask them “what would happen if you didn’t have these things?”. Usually what they respond with is a “pain point”. It’s something that is keeping them from being successful. Asking them to identify this is not only good for you to understand the reality of what is at stake for them, but it also gives them a chance to vocalize how important it is to them too. I really love how Robert Irvine defines the pain point on the tv show, “Restaurant Impossible”. He always asks his clients “what’s at stake here? How much have you invested in this failing business and what’s on the line?” Usually they say something like “We’ve sunk every penny we have in this restaurant and if we don’t make money in 2 months we’ll lose everything, including our home”.

Once you know what’s at stake, you can truly empathize with your client.

Those are just a few I have in mind, but please if you have any tips about how to communicate with your clients in a more organic way while still getting the information you need, please do share!

In the meantime, please do check out Creative Confidence. It’s a spectacular book!