Lessons from Inventors Past: Empathy

I've been reflecting on a humorous story that I came across in a book about the Scientists of the Renaissance by physicist, John Gribbin. It involves Galileo and his (re)invention of the telescope, and for me, served to reinforce the importance of empathy and psychology in design research. I am currently in the discovery phase of a project so perhaps it was on the mind. I hope you find it as engaging and enlightening as I did!


What most people know about Galileo was that he was one of the most prominent early astronomers, renowned for his important discovery of the moons of Jupiter and for his contributions to mechanics and motion. The first of these was significant because it gave incontrovertible evidence of a planetary body's ability to possess satellites, which was hard to reconcile with the Earth-centered model containing crystalline spheres. This rocked the boat with the Church, as it supported the sun-centered Copernican model, which was considered taboo at the time. 

This is usually where the story ends. Rarely in the history books do we learn what these great geniuses were like. What inspired them? Did they struggle or doubt? How close were they to throwing in the towel? 

Now, the good part! According to Gribbin, Galileo's father had promised a sizable dowry to his daughter, shortly before his death. As Galileo was the eldest male, he inherited this debt and struggled to keep pace with payments during much of his academic and professional life. As a professor of mathematics, Galileo never made much by way of salary and had to navigate the tenuous waters of Italy's shifting political and religious climates to retain his seat. This vulnerable perch and ever-present debt conditioned him to seek the one invention/discovery/windfall that would ensure his sustained comfort and position.

In 1609, when Galileo heard that a Danish merchant was traveling to Padua with a device that enabled the user to see distant objects, he understood the military potential of such technology (and it's value to the ruling class of Padua). Armed only with the knowledge that such a device contained two lenses, Galileo spent the next 24 hours building his own telescope to beat the Dane to Padua. To his brilliant credit, he used one concave lens and one convex lens, yielding an upright image, where the two concave lenses in the Danish version projects upside down. Galileo's ambition and incomplete knowledge actually worked to his advantage, unlocking his own creativity and ingenuity. The politically-savvy Galileo then presented the telescope as a gift to the ruler of Padua, who doubled his salary and awarded him a position for life.


It would be presumptuous to say that Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter by happenstance, but by this point in his career, Galileo's eyesight was failing. Due to his efforts to establish himself and ensure his financial security, he now had access to a telescope of unparalleled power. Without this instrument, it would have been highly unlikely that he'd be the first to make such a discovery.

One of the reasons I like this story so much is that it underlines the need to dig deeper, to take a second look beyond just what's on the surface. We could accept that Galileo was a brilliant astronomer and mathematician, centuries ahead of his peers, and deserves his fame owing merely to intellect. But is it not more interesting (and closer to the truth) to go deeper, and say that Galileo succeeded through his skills in glassware, ambition, shrewdness, and political connections? If not for these traits, surely another astronomer would have pointed a Danish telescope to the night skies to make the same discovery.

Design Thinking teaches us to approach users with empathy. It teaches us not to take what we read and hear at face value, but rather to dig deeper. When interviewing participants, observe their environments, explore their emotions/motivations/pressures, ask why (repeatedly), and ultimately uncover what lies beneath. It may have huge consequences.

For example, in a VR experience, it matters if the Guests arrive after three hours in a crowded museum versus if it's a stand-alone destination. If that VR experience is in a NYC museum (like the Void), it's quite likely the Guests don't speak English. The same VR experience could be perfect for a 13th birthday party in a suburban movie theater, but a nightmare for a Ukrainian Mother of two on a family holiday, stressed from keeping watch over her family, disoriented by a headset, and unable to interpret oral instructions. 

By adopting mindsets in turn of psychologists, anthropologists, and the customers themselves, we can make important connections that make or break the success of a product or service.