Beyond UX Design: The Case for Empathy in Every Career

Hayley Smith
3 min readNov 22, 2020
A very dejected Toby Flenderson in an episode of The Office
A very dejected Toby Flenderson in an episode of The Office

We all have known someone who cannot “read the room” and insert their foot in their mouth, usually on a repeated basis. Does empathy really need its case to be made? Probably not, but, especially during this time, it is something I feel passionately about.

Quick background: If you’ve done a strength’s finder test (mentioned in another of my blog posts) you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, highly recommend taking one and learning more about yourself. In my case, empathy is my top strength. I have always had a “gut feeling” about people, situations, and can read the folks around me. The better I know you the better I know when you are down or hiding something. This has been helpful and hurtful in my past relationships but is invaluable in UX. UX Designers NEED to be able to empathize with users and stakeholders, but this is a trait that goes beyond just one field.

I was on a long car ride this week to see a friend and listened to a podcast. It’s a comforting pastime now that I rarely have a commute to listen to one during. The Office is one of my favorite shows and I’ve been really enjoying the Office Ladies Podcast by Jenna Fisher and Angela Kinsey. They dissect each episode one by one and give the behind-the-scenes view on what really went on, usually with some sensational guest appearances by other cast/crew members. The episode in question is The Job, Part 1.

Paul Lieberstein, perhaps better known as Toby Flenderson, was the guest appearance this week. Paul played Toby out of necessity when the show wasn’t sure if it would be picked up. He was actually a writer on the show! Apparently, The Office was a rare breed to use writers as cast members; they typically remain separate in show biz.

Paul described his love for the cast and crew, then dove into talking about his stepping into acting. He’d never acted or played a role before becoming Toby. You’ll have to check out the episode for full details and more insight, but I was fascinated by the way he described learning how to act and understanding what actors actually did. He didn’t know how they stepped into a character and imagined all of these sounds, feelings, etc. going on that they would act around to deliver magic to the audience.

What is interesting to me is that Paul was not able to fully empathize with the people he was creating for until this moment. On past projects, he would not interact with the actors apart from seeing them on screen, but at The Office, he not only interacted with actors but became one. I can only imagine that Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapur), BJ Novak (Ryan Howard), and Mike Shur (Dwight’s cousin Mose) had similar experiences when they bridged the acting/writing gap or had already had the experience.

Why is this important? It made the show better! It made characters stronger and influenced the way the writers wrote! Being able to know what an actor does to deliver helps immensely in crafting the scripts and playing to their strengths. That show is brilliantly written and continues to be loved by so many. I truly believe that this is because they did so many things differently than the industry typically had.

To me this is a no-brainer: If you want a show/product/service/whatever with a strong following and heart, the people who are creating that thing have to be doing so with heart as well.

Bottom line: True, sustainable success and relationships are built on empathy. The world can always use more empathy- in relationships, in businesses, and in governments.

Where do you think we need more empathy? When is a time that you found success in using empathy?