Empathy—the capacity to understand or feel what others experience from their perspective—can be overwhelming and taxing or insightful and useful, depending on how we experience it. As we get older, we typically become better at noticing how people feel, instead of absorbing their feelings, and are eventually able to identify how we can best reach out to help them get through a tough time.
That final step—identifying what people need in a particular situation—is a valuable tool. It sounds strange to think of empathy as a professional skill, but being able to operationalize it into a well-thought-out plan to give consumers the information, services, or motivation they need means we can help people on a large scale. A recent Parkinson’s disease (PD) drug campaign is a good example.
When our team started the project, we went above and beyond the usual research into the category, compound, customer, and competition and tried to understand what life is like for people with PD. One of the first steps was to develop an “empathy map”—an exercise that helps illustrate what a specific group of people see, hear, say, do, think, and feel. This was accomplished by diving into PD patient advocacy websites to read first-person narratives, looking at paintings that patients created before and after their diagnosis to see how PD affected their art, and reading message boards to learn how community members described their experience with PD—the similarities, the differences, and the words they used to encourage each other. These insights helped us identify specific pains the PD community experiences and what they need to improve their quality of life.
We also visited a local boxing gym that specializes in workouts for the PD community. Exercise is one of the best things PD patients can do to maintain their balance, coordination, and strength, and boxing is particularly effective. We listened to gym members talk about how boxing benefitted them, conducted a focus group to learn more about PD treatment options and preferences, and shot a video of members running through boxing drills to inspire the rest of our team. When we told the owner how meaningful we found our trips to his gym, he said that his clients enjoy the workouts and comradery so much that they regularly break through their “Parkinson’s mask” (the expressionless stare that comes from loss of facial muscle control) into big ear-to-ear smiles.
We also conducted quite a few interviews with patients, caregivers, and movement disorder specialists as part of our immersion. One of the interviewees was so well-spoken, funny, intelligent, and inspirational that we ended up interviewing him three times. The more he spoke about his experience with PD, the more questions we had for him. It turns out that he created his own PD nonprofit, and to thank him for the five hours he spent talking with us, we bought tickets for our whole team to attend his annual Oktoberfest fundraiser. The event was a beautiful capstone to our immersion experience, because in addition to learning about the ways that PD affects people’s lives, we had the chance to see how they continue to live despite a life-changing diagnosis.
To say that this process was valuable to our team is an understatement. By learning from the PD community what they hope to gain from treatment options, we’re motivated to operationalize our empathy into concrete deliverables that will hopefully benefit everyone with whom we connected.
This entire experience can be summed up in a quote from “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” We care a whole awful lot about this community and plan on replicating this immersion to continue helping our clients.