A Workshop on Empathy


I’m organizing a Workshop on Empathy-Centric Design: Scrutinizing Empathy Beyond the Individual @ CHI 2024 in Hawaii. If you work in the space of affective computing, HCI, emotion, empathy, or affective human factors, please consider submitting or contact me for further details.

Early in 2023, I submitted a paper to the EmpathiCH workshop at the CHI conference in Hamburg. It was a career-defining moment in a very literal sense. In October 2023, I reached out about helping organize the workshop, and the former organizers were more than happy to have me join in to help. Long story short; the workshop was accepted and will be held at CHI 2024! This is the long story for that.

EmpathiCH and Empathy-Centred Design

The workshop series that I am contributing to is actually the thirf edition of the workshop (my paper was submitted to the second). The core idea of the conference was to explore empathy-centred design, i.e. designing interfaces, systems, spaces, anything focussing on human-computer interaction that has emapthy as one of the principle components of the design thought.

I was shared this workshop by friend and colleague Jovan Jeromela, and I thank him to this day for it because at the time, I was working on a linguistic and corpus analysis of dialogue corpora claiming to be “empathetic” and other conversation corpora between people, gathered from both unconstrainted human-human conversation as well as a dataset designed specifically for “getting to know the other person”. There were interesting differences between them which I shall cover in a separate blog post. More to the point, I did not have a venue where this work could be seen as a stepping stone contribution towards any further research, and including it in publications on that further research was proving to be an uphill task.

Enter EmpathiCH, dealing with empathy-centred design, a field I did not know existed to the point at which there were workshops about it. Cool. I submitted my work to them, which thankfully was accepted, and it helped both align and centre my work in terms of the stepping stone I would need for the rest of my PhD.

Why I asked to contribute

Outside of my paper getting accepted, there was something very surreal about the EmpathiCH workshop. Other than its location at CHI, and the myriad of different research methods, models, and ideas that come with that broad a field (I learned about soma research, something I had never considered before, mindboggling). Far more than that, EmpahthiCH felt approachable in a unique way. The organizing committee was kind, welcomed questions, welcomed debate, openly talked about the complexities of the field and the need to build a more complete understanding of empathy and the role it plays in a human-computer system.

In my mind, what set this workshop apart was that by the end of it, even workshop organizers were willingly engaging in the idea that perhaps empathy-centred design is at least a little farcical. Not only does it suffer from definitional complexities, but it is not applicable the moment we have to examine the conditions of people whose lived experience doesn’t conform to ours. An example of this would be empathetic design for people with disabilities, which is somewhat of an oxymoron, because the designer can not empathize with the target group of the design unless they also experience life in the same conditions. And using intersectionality, we can imagine how this can be a problem: no one can design anything empathetically for anyone except people who have the same lived experience as them, i.e. themselves.

But we design accounting for the emotions of others all the time! How could that be? While the discussion itself is something I want to expound upon more from an academic standpoint and tease out the goldmine of irony involved in empathy research, the fact that it was happening made me very happy. Weirdly, it feels safe when dissent from existing paradigms is encouraged in an academic setting. It is principally motivating to know that a pocket of academia exists that is willing to be wrong and accepting of setback and examining inconsistency as a matter of profession.

I asked Wo Meijer, Andrea Mauri, and Himanshu Verma (former and current co-organizers of the workshop) if I could help organize the next edition of the workshop. They agreed to work with me on this and man, I was elated. There may be a bit of naivety in how happy I felt about organizing this, but it meant that in some way I could help foster a similar academic environment as the one I had experienced at the workshop as an author and contribute. So here it is: Empathy-Centric Design: Scrutinizing Empathy Beyond the Individual :D

Workshop Theme

The 3rd EmpathiCH Workshop focuses on Empathy-Centric Design much like its previous editions; with the theme of Scrutinizing Empathy Beyond the Individual. This theme was initially brought about as an extension of the aforementioned closing keynote, the idea of empathy not being a viable design principle due to the lack of lived experience. While true, in the space of design, I imagine it would be rather tedious to hand off the development and implementation of all accessibility features to be developed by those who need them most. Clearly, empathy and empathetic reasoning play a role in the abstract of designing interactive interfaces, products, and services. But how?

One possible solution is to look at expressed empathy beyond traditional boundaries of human-human interaction. With advancements in technology, there is not just an interface between two users now, rather the ability to project a persona, an externalised representation of self. Emotional expression is also not limited to people, we interact In a human-like manner with platforms, companies, conglomerates, you name it. We talk to the X account X on X about X. This has far reaching consequences, because empathetic expression that relies of those available emotions are not directly representative of a human user. Sure, a human may have authored them, but it is a digital user. The impact of placid depersonalisation of this sort implies that any interface or design decisions made towards studying, simulating, increasing, countering, or influencing empathetic interaction requires research. Our workshop is the place to present that research!

More importantly, this ties into our earlier problem because it studies not empathy Bia interaction, but empathy necessitated by production, something like Grice’s Maxims. Though they are applicable in dialogue, we study them as maxims associated with the production, where flouting the maxim characterizes the utterance in a specific manner. In the same way, empathy is seen as a production phenomenon wherein empathy Is studied towards or as a collective experience and how interfaces can be designed to better align with that improved experience.

Another facet of work that would lie within this theme is designing empathy-oriented experiments and exercises, or more broadly, the role that the researcher plays in empathy-centred design. From our website:

“… as the HCI community places increased emphasis on empathy-centric design, the role of the researcher in facilitating and studying these designs becomes pivotal, multifaceted and deserves scrutiny.”

This ties in neatly with the last workshop theme, going beyond empathy as perspective-taking. As researchers and the everyday person, both the word “empathy” and actual empathetic expression, often revolve around the idea of “How would I feel if I were you.” This is the exact mindset that was criticised, or at least questioned, in the closing talk last year. The idea is to examine empathetic design not for “the expereince I would want if I were you”, but rather the “experience you want, communicated to me through the lens of what emotions this experience can help induce or reduce”. Not as catchy a phrase, but I will work on it.

Organizers and Other Information

It goes without saying that the workshop would not exist in its current form without the efforts of Allison Lahnala, Wo Meijer, Himanshu Verma, Andrea Mauri, and Uğur Genç, and the help of Yum Suem Pai, Yen Chia Hsu, Ewan Soubutts, Michal Lahav, Tiffanie Horne, and Giulia Barbareschi. This isn’t empty acknowledgements, I am genuinely at a loss for words at how quickly, efficiently, and cleanly they work. The draft writing, the website creation, and the logistics of handling workshop administration are down to an art, and it is quite nice to see. I am excited for the actual workshop to take place as well to organize the workshop I submitted to last year. Thanks, EmpathiCH.