Tech is having a human moment.

Microsoft is hiring Human Understanding and Empathy researchers. Upwork wants designers for an Empathy Mapping project. Google is hiring engineers for its Empathy Lab. Alongside that, we’re starting to see job openings not just for UX/UI designers and researchers, but also for another related area: service design.

How is service design different from UX/UI design, and what does it have to do with empathy?

That’s what we’re here to discuss.

This is a human moment that’s going to last, and we’ll need more people who are skilled enough to help us redesign—not bury—human potential as technology carries us into the future.   

Why more empathetic jobs are being created

First, let’s get the story straight: Human-centred jobs will be enhanced, not replaced, by Artificial Intelligence.

Many of the “future of work” predictions you see now paint a dismal picture of automation: low-skilled jobs like service work and even high-skilled jobs like software engineering will be replaced by machines. But if this view holds true, it won’t mean people will simply be out of work; it means new jobs will be created, especially those defined by a uniquely “human” quality like empathy.   

People don’t want to listen to robots making speeches, leading the company, or giving pep talks

says Kai-Fu Lee, Taiwanese technologist and author of AI Super Powers, in an interview with Carmine Gallo for Inc. Magazine. “They do not want to listen to robots in conversation making friends or earning our lifelong trust. Nor do they want a robot to do tasks like teachers and nurses. We will end up with the inevitable outcome that large numbers of routine jobs will be eliminated, and large numbers of empathetic jobs will be created.”

Lee tells Gallo about a friend who built a touchscreen personal assistance device for elderly people to use at home. These people could easily order food, watch TV, or consult a doctor. But the most popular service of the device was the customer service request function. And here’s the twist: People were not calling customer service because they wanted to resolve an issue; they were calling because they wanted someone to talk to.

Once material needs were taken care of, people wanted human contact, another person to trade stories with.”

Lee recommends “doubling down” on the qualities which make us uniquely human in order to safeguard ourselves against an uncertain future: creativity, compassion, empathy, trust, passion, and effective communication.

In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts these are the top skills employers will be looking for by 2030, along with interpersonal skills, leadership and managing others, entrepreneurship and initiative-taking, adaptability and continuous learning, and teaching and training others. 

“AI is incapable of building trust between two people (or between customers and a company),” Lee says. “It cannot inspire teamwork, show passion or exhibit empathy because it has no imagination.”

But is it all as cut-and-dry as Lee makes it sound? Can’t a machine be programmed to empathise and build trust?

The answer is yes and no.

Artificial empathy: Can empathy be taught to robots?

It’s not the first time we’ve considered the question. And it’s significant that research on human empathy has developed alongside progress in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning:

  • 1950: The Turing Test became the first assessment designed to compare machine intelligence to human intelligence. Writers and researchers then became interested in comparing other types of intelligence, like emotional intelligence, between people and machines.
  • 1968: Science fiction writer Philip K Dick first made us question an AI’s ability to feel empathy with his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • 1990: Social psychologist C. Daniel Baston published research showing we are more likely to help someone in need when we “feel for” that person, helping us refine our popular and technical definitions of empathy.
  • 1995: MIT computer scientist Rosalind Picard coined the term “affective computing” to describe “computing that relates to, arises from, or influences emotions.”
  • 1997: Decision scientist Karen Jenni and economist George Lowenstein discovered the Identifiable Victim Effect: “Humans’ ability to scale empathy is constrained by our greater willingness to respond to individual victims of whom we know specific details.”
  • 2007: Psychologist Paul Slovic showed that people become “numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals” of large-scale disasters and atrocities—known as the Psychic Numbing Effect. Statistics surrounding such events “fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.” 
  • 2007: Deep learning became feasible, and machine learning became integral to many widely used software services and applications.
  • 2015: Researchers found that “an iconic photo of a single child [specifically Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi] had more impact than statistical reports of hundreds of thousands of deaths.”
  • 2017: MIT’s Deep Empathy Lab was created to try to increase empathy for victims of far-away disasters using Google’s machine-learning algorithm to create images that simulate disasters closer to home.

(List adapted from MIT’s Deep Empathy Lab)

In 2019, Oxford University researcher Cecilia Heyes published a report claiming that empathy is not genetic; it’s a learned behaviour that can be cultivated or discouraged:

Research with animals, infants, adults and robots suggests that the mechanism of empathy, emotional contagion, is constructed in the course of development through social interaction,” Heyes writes. “Empathy is both agile and fragile. It can be enhanced and redirected by novel experience, and broken by social change.”

Does all of this mean robots can learn to empathise too?

So far, robots can interpret tone, triangulate body language, and analyse words and eye movements. It can learn over time whether a human is feeling anxious or relaxed. But it can’t process complex emotion, and if it can’t do that, then it can’t respond to it either. 

We don’t understand all that much about emotions to begin with, and we’re very far from having computers that really understand that,” says Bill Mark, president of Information and Computing Services at SRI International, whose AI team invented Siri. “I think we’re even farther away from achieving artificial empathy. Some people cry when they’re happy, a lot of people smile when they’re frustrated. So, very simplistic approaches, like thinking that if somebody is smiling they’re happy, are not going to work.

Researchers at Osaka University suggest that the experience of “artificial pain” may be a prerequisite to artificial empathy, and that the following need to happen before empathy can be induced in robots:

  • Associate the sensory discrimination of pain with the affective and motivational responses to pain
  • Recall the experience when a painful situation of others is observed
  • Generate appropriate behaviour to reduce the pain.

In other words, we have a long way to go before machines can “feel” the way humans can. Some experts think it may never happen.

In truth, we all do have our patterns—like literally there are emotional rhythms and emotional tendencies,” says Danielle Krettek, founder of Google’s Empathy Lab. “So, I think if we allow machines to observe us long enough, they’ll probably be able to mimic us very convincingly. But my personal opinion is that the real emotional connection—that real empathic connection, and the idea of being self-aware—I think is a uniquely human thing.”

Krettek also thinks we’re asking the wrong question.

I think the false grail of AI is that they’ll be just like humans,” she says, “encouraging us to think of AI as more of a “companion species.

She urges us to consider how AI can take us on adventures beyond ourselves, expand our perceptions and capabilities, help us feel more alive.

Other experts agree.

If properly designed, AI might augment our human empathy at the same accelerated scale at which earlier technology has improved our physical and computational abilities,” writes Jesus Mantas for the World Economic Forum. “What can we become when our ability to understand, and relate to others, is enhanced a hundred-fold? What society might we build if we can ‘reverse-engineer’ our unconscious biases? Could we improve each other’s understanding of situations and, in doing so, actually make ‘common sense’ a common sense?” 

It’s this “companion species” mindset that we need more AI engineers and designers to adopt while ushering in the next wave of technology. AI will not replace human empathy; it will enhance it. And when human empathy can be enhanced, we’ll need more humans—not robots—to create and deliver meaningful experiences.

Enter: service designers.

Service designers: The empaths of the future

To empathise means to understand another’s experience. The more completely you understand someone else, the more you can empathise with them.

Although UX/UI designers are concerned with the user journey and therefore empathy and perspective-taking, their understanding isn’t as holistic as a service designer’s.

So what’s the difference in practice, exactly?

You’ve probably heard it before: Service design and UX/UI design are “the same but totally different.”

We learned that UX is not UI,” writes Erik Flowers, a veteran service designer based in Mountain View, California.Now, it is time for us to collectively consider: Service Design is not UX.

In fact, they’re different enough that “service designer” is becoming an in-demand role in its own right and beginning to enter the tech space in a major way.   

While UX and UI jobs are still largely product-oriented, service design encompasses the whole gamut of processes that go into delivering a service. For example, if you’re switching from UX to Service Design, Flowers says, “You might have had something tangible to ship before, but service design doesn’t operate at that altitude. What you ship might feel like just a set of instructions, like the blocking for a play, or a recipe you don’t personally cook.”

This means cultivating empathy for a greater number of people and processes.

The whole customer experience

Service design is more holistic than other types of design: How is the service delivered and experienced beyond the screen, beyond Sketch and HTML? How is the customer experience delivered beyond the primary service itself, even?

I hate to break it to you, but digital is not the only thing that matters,” writes Chi Pham for UX Collective. “Imagine, everyone has an amazing interface, beautiful UI interactions, and neat-o mobile apps. But what brings customers back to a business over and over again, now that everyone has these amazing digital experiences? The entire customer experience.”

When you go to your favorite coffee shop, it’s not just for the coffee; it’s for the demeanor of the baristas, the seating arrangements, the WIFI connection, the snack options, the eco-friendly quality of the beans—the overall harmony of the experience. A service designer’s job is to orchestrate that harmony.

UX design might include things outside of service, like the furniture or the type of music the baristas play. But service design is about eliminating that annoying long-handled spoon on the side of the latte glass which rattles precariously as customers carry their drinks back to their tables, especially when you see that most customers are removing them from their saucers, unused.

One classic example of good service design is Apple’s Genius Bar, where you can take your iPhone for repairs and expect it to be back up and running in no time. Airbnb has also made traveling more enjoyable and convenient with its Experiences function, and the hotel industry is scrambling to catch up as they realise customers are starting to expect multiple services in one.

The whole employee experience

Service design also goes beyond the user to address how the company gets things done.

Service design is not simply designing a service,” writes Pham. “Service design addresses how an organisation gets something done— think ‘experience of the employee.’”

She adds: “It’s holistic. It’s multi-disciplinary. It’s integrative. It’s approaching and solving problems from a systems-based perspective.”

Since service designers are an integral part of operations, empathising with employees as well as users, they often end up taking on more of a leadership role than UX/UI designers.

Unless you’re in UX design upper management, you typically work ‘heads down’ and aren’t a part of designing for the bigger picture,” says Flowers. “Service design floats at a different altitude where its focus is the bigger picture, and you’ll find yourself more involved in the higher-level activities that you might think are reserved for managers, directors, or strategists.”

In this way, service design is a kind of choreography, working with silos, business units, and teams to navigate all operations smoothly.   

Because of this, your role becomes more of a facilitator, guide, advisor, and leader,” he says.

The number-one quality of a great facilitator? You guessed it: empathy.

Redesigning human potential

The future of human potential within the future of work is something service designers will have great influence over.

There is a global need for humanising work processes beyond mere digitization,” writes Signe Bek, a Service Designer who attended the Service Design Global Conference in 2018. “Around 70% of employees around the world are not engaged in their jobs.”

And that’s not an automation problem; it’s a human problem. 

The problem is not the robots; the real issue is that human potential is currently being wasted due to legacy processes and old-fashioned systems and organisational hierarchies. As service systems designers, our finest job is to avoid this waste of human potential.”

Bek goes on to explain how products have become “invisible touchpoints within increasingly complex service systems” and that it’s time to redesign these systems with the following goals in mind:

  • Build for trust in an age of distrust
  • Protect our users’ privacy and identity
  • Be transparent about how data is stored and managed
  • Seed for slow thinking and social cooling as a reaction to increasing digital addiction

All of these tasks require empathy and trust.

The lack of involvement, onboarding and adoption often originates from a fear of a loss. When we introduce a new system it’s implicit that we’re getting rid of an existing system. It all comes down to an intrinsic human fear of being obsolete,” Bek says. “Delivery is dependent on an ongoing relationship and a mutual exchange of trust between the design team and the stakeholders—from project launch to implementation.

If we start training and hiring more service designers to create trust in this way, these processes will become much easier to navigate within and across organisational cultures. Employees will stay engaged in their jobs, more jobs will be created, and companies will future-proof themselves along the way.

“Companies that see themselves as products and a brand, they will struggle,” Flowers forecasts. “Companies that see themselves as providing a service—or better, acting in service—will thrive.”

It’s time to humanise the future of work, and service designers can help us get there.

A secret tip from an expert service designer

Finally, Flowers has some unconventional advice for those looking to shift into a service design career:

Your first service design job might be your current job. Start doing it today. Fortune favors the bold; do it in the open by talking to your boss about these new methods or activities you want to try.

Or you could try something a little more strategic:

Do it without telling anyone, just start. Start doing it, applying it, learning it, morph yourself into that service design superhero you know you can be, and then when you start making noticeable changes, you have that one key you need: evidence.”

In other words, if you don’t yet have the job you want, it’s okay to get creative. If companies don’t offer you the job you want, it’s okay to tell them why they should. The future of work depends on it.


Author: Saga Briggs.
Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena



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