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More empathy needs more questions: a Q&A with Rachel Ginsberg

For many of us, formative years working in retail or foodservice account for why we always tip a certain amount or carefully fold a sweater before returning it to the shelf. In the case of Rachel Ginsberg, a job at a shoe store had a more profound effect.

Early on, Ginsberg observed a disconnect between what the store did to meet customer needs and what the customer actually needed or wanted. “I sold shoes,” she explained to me over the phone, from New York, “ But having an uncomfortable pair of shoes on can definitely ruin your day.”

Understanding that simple truth made a difference—it was empathy at work. Today, Ginsberg practices empathy as a brand strategist and teaches it, too.

Hit the ground running

Along her career trajectory, Ginsberg moved from retail gigs to graduate school. Her first full-time agency job was with a New York design firm whose client was a prominent big box retailer. As part of a small team of strategists and designers, Ginsberg’s job was to reimagine the client’s approach to the in-store experience, asking questions like: What is the purpose of the store? Who does the store serve?

The same questions are likely being asked today by well-known and innovative brands like Amazon and Apple.

These days, Ginsberg is Principal at her own company, Branding for Experience. She also consults and runs design sessions with the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab. Her work there has taken her far beyond the realm of retail—the lab, in conjunction with a dynamic initiative called The Empathy Lab, has involved Ginsberg in social impact projects that require empathy and have the potential to change the world, one interaction at a time. Ginsberg kindly took an hour of her time to break it all down for me.

The Empathy Lab is the result of a collaboration between Refinery29 and the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab, but in your own words, what is it? What’s the mission?

The mission of The Empathy Lab is to amplify the amount of empathy in the world. That's not without purpose—we're not just wandering around going, “We want to make everybody more empathetic.” That's nice, but why? What purpose does empathy serve if we’re not pointing that energy in a particular direction?

The overall aim of The Empathy Lab is to amplify the work of a number of changemakers across different industries. Each project has a goal, and each operates with empathy at its core.

We amplify this kind of work by reframing empathy as a tool for design. Empathy is not an end—empathy is a condition that allows us to build better products and better experiences, better organizations, and better families. Better everything—a better society.

Empathy is not an end—empathy is a condition that allows us to build better products and better experiences, better organizations, and better families. Better everything—a better society.

So well said. And so necessary in today’s social and political climate.

One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time working on and trying to execute at the Digital Storytelling Lab is this concept that we’ve called “purpose-driven partnership.” It’s built on the hypothesis that it’s in everybody’s best interest to align around purpose-driven work—from universities to government to tech companies, and so on—because there are so many big, wicked problems that we’re all facing. Things like climate change and global poverty and food shortages. There’s a philanthropic case to be made for addressing this kind of work, and also a business case. We’re presented with massive risks to the global economy that we share and we should all be concerned with humanity and the shape of the world.

We’re getting right into it. As you said, these are big problems, and I love the idea that we should all be tackling them. But on a day-to-day level, how can we all make sure that our work is purpose-driven?

There are many top- and bottom-line benefits for companies that have happy employees, who in turn deliver good experiences for customers. At the end of the day, that’s good for the world.

It’s just having that “doing well by doing good” philosophy. We [at the lab] really believe in it. As organizations, we have to adjust as the world changes around us. For example, so many funding models for social impact work are broken. So many organizations are having structural brand challenges around delivering consistent experiences. What happens when cars and trucks are self-driving? Automation is going to completely shift the landscape of the workforce in the next 20 years, and we all have a stake in solving these types of problems.

So we have to think ahead, and we have to think differently. For example, what if we were to bring diverse groups of people together who all have a stake in solving these problems and co-design possible solutions that represent everyone’s needs and points of view?

At Relate Live, you’re going to show us how to quickly activate empathy and create fast, easy connections. What effect has doing this kind of work had on you?

Watching people talk to each other and tell each other stories has a profound effect on me—literally every single time. This work affects how I operate personally in the world. I’m more in touch with my ability to listen to other people and to recognize that I don’t know what they’re thinking, unless I ask them—that data doesn’t always tell a complete story. So much of being empathic is about talking to people, asking them about what they’re experiencing, and being able to listen to them when they tell you. At Relate Live, we’ll be conducting a few simple exercises that teach people how to do this very thing.

Practicing these kinds of conversations over and over again has made my work more collaborative and has reminded me not to approach the work as though I have all the answers. As a strategist, expecting that we will be able to provide all the answers is almost fundamental to the way we operate. The way the industry works now, strategists are supposed to be the ones with the solutions, but what might strategy look like if we’re not? What if instead we’re the facilitators of the process of arriving at an answer?

I’d love to talk about designing consistent brand experiences. What should companies be thinking about as they design for the customer?

If as an organization you haven’t first designed a brand and culture that reflects that brand, then the people who are charged with designing the experiences will have a hard time creating experiences that are consistently reflective of the brand. Everyone within the organization needs to have an innate understanding of what the brand stands for.

Typically, in many larger organizations, the challenge is that the people who are keepers of the brand are often very far away from the people designing marketing touchpoints or customer experiences. It becomes hard to know if you're designing a brand that can actually be executed and operationalized.

You have to ask yourself questions like: Can you assess employee performance based on these brand values? Can you create policies around customer interactions based on your brand values? Can you design experiences that reflect these values, and will they be differentiating? Brand strategy can’t be just some nice language for your website that you paid a lot of money for. Good strategy becomes great when it gives you actionable tools to help run your business, and to keep tabs on how it needs to evolve.

It’s the purpose behind your brand When you lead with that, you’re in a better position to design experiences that are differentiating, too.

Let’s say that I don’t work at a slick startup or a household name like Target or Starbucks. Not all companies are clearly aligned around a shared set of values. In that case, how can I begin to make meaningful adjustments to my company culture?

I often tell organizations that being challenged in this area is nothing to be ashamed of or to feel bad about. You’re not doing it wrong. These questions around brand and experience design are all normal, 21st-century challenges. They’re all relatively new, in the scheme of things. So if your company isn’t operating this way, it’s not an indication that you’re doing bad business; it’s more an indication that the landscape has dramatically changed.

We need to begin reframing our practices with this changed landscape in mind. In general, everyone needs to know why their company exists in the world. That’s necessary to unite culture and employees and to gauge whether the work you’re doing is moving the needle. It’s not so much about the product or service you sell as it is about the grander ambition behind that product or service. Ask yourself: What other kinds of value does your product or service create for the consumer?

In my personal practice I work on bridging the gap between brand and experience because any experience that a customer has with an organization shapes the customer’s perception of that organization. There was a time when customer experiences were fairly limited in scope, but today there are so many more touchpoints, each with different strengths and weaknesses that need to be optimized and supported accordingly. For retailers, for example, the internet is great for providing quick, easy recommendations to meet straightforward needs, whereas a physical store is the ideal environment to expose customers to new products that they might love, but weren’t necessarily looking for.

I work on bridging the gap between brand and experience because any experience that a customer has with an organization shapes the customer’s perception of that organization.

So organizations have to work to ensure experiences are both coherent and on-brand, across channels. Each touchpoint should represent the distinctive qualities of the specific organization and capture its values and its purpose for existing in the world, while also making sense in relation to the medium and environment that touchpoint operates within.

What is the role of empathy in creating these consistent, branded experiences?

Empathy is a practice that leads to a condition. It’s a muscle that you have to learn how to use, Some people are more natural at it than others, but once you understand, especially when you’ve made it your job to understand the needs of others, you’ll have a better roadmap for creating experiences that actually meet customer needs.

Qualitative research is a great way to practice empathy. Hanging out in someone’s house with them, or doing a shop-along with a mom and her two kids will help you to better understand that experience. A lot of the work I do is based on methods that more actively solicit insights from the stakeholders in question. In addition to observing existing behaviors, as is currently common practice in design research, bringing people together in conversation adds tremendously useful information to any experience design process. Regardless of the method, the number of people who actually do this for an organization is pretty limited, which is why it’s really important for teams to work together—both to understand each other, and the value of understanding each other.

The more you practice empathy, the more you bring it into your culture. Of course, it needs to be supported by the organization, but for us, at the Digital Storytelling Lab, empathy is always the baseline. On top of that, storytelling is at the root of all the empathy-driven exercises that we do. When we begin a design session, we always do an empathy-based exercise to help us bond as a group and to level-set, to say, “We’re here to have authentic conversations and we’re aligning the needs of our work with our human need to connect.”

One exercise we use regularly, “5x Why”, is a really simple way to accomplish that level set. It’s an activity done in pairs, where each member of the pair asks each other the same “why” question five times in a row, resisting the urge to ask follow-up questions. Among many benefits, “5x Why” removes the opportunity to be distracted formulating the next question, and allows the interviewer to really listen to their partner’s response.

On Relate, we’ve explored empathy as a choice. Here you’re almost describing empathy as a contagion. But if we flip this around, what are some blockers to practicing empathy?

There’s a number of them! A lot of the time it's hierarchy and the speed of 21st-century life. We also don’t prioritize empathy as a culture, at least in the U.S. We’re a country of doers, which is incredible, but we don’t always stop and listen to each other. So often, we’re focused on assessing the value of an idea without really taking the time to understand the underlying problem. But as a business solving for customers, you have to know your audience. You have to spend time understanding what people need.

What’s something we can each do right now to practice empathy?

At the Digital Storytelling Lab, we believe in the power of collaboration. By that we mean that we bring diverse groups of people together to get different perspectives in the room and to solve problems together. A normal session for us might have storytellers, designers, hackers, coders, scientists, activists, patients and clinicians working together to co-design empathetic healthcare tools.

One of the simplest things an organization can do is to convene groups of people that are diverse in every possible way and to talk about the work. I’m talking about racial, gender, ethnic and religious diversity, but also about the more traditional vectors. Are you used to just dealing with engineers? Or are engineers, designers, marketing, and customer service folks all in the same room, sharing information? Get those people into a room for 30 minutes a week to talk about one really important thing everyone has learned. When you talk to people who are like you, you can learn something, but it’s probably not what you most need to know.

Suzanne Barnecut loves reading and writing stories of all kinds and duration. She is a frequent contributor to Relate, and creates brand content and tells customer stories for Zendesk. In her spare time, she can be found writing fiction, reading The New Yorker, and consuming (too many) pastries from San Francisco’s bakeries. Find her on Twitter at: @elisesuz.