The time I learned empathy wasn't enough.

In 2016, the “Hunger and Homelessness” survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that D.C. had the highest rate of homelessness out of 32 major cities in the United States. In fact, the city has 124 homeless people for every 10,000 residents. Even worse, according to the National Coalition for Homelessness, 39% of the homeless population is under 18 years old. And the average age of a homeless person?

9 years old.


My team and I began working with the Opportunity Project, an initiative out of the Obama White House, to create a problem statement that would empower us to tackle this problem of youth homelessness in a way that would enable us to leverage federal data sets from the Department of Education and Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a solution. We were right on track. We only had one problem. One huge problem.

Do homeless youth have the same access to technology that we do?

As a team, we went back and forth on this for hours. Our “empathy” caused us to feel stuck in the privilege our access to technology provided us. We felt as though we were making assumptions about our users at every turn. Could we ever create a digital solution for a population that doesn’t have access to the same things that we do? How could we move forward with creating a product that requires internet when it is a platform our users would be unable to access?

Not knowing where else to start, we decided to talk to user advocates, who were specifically designated and available spokespeople who could give us insights about our user base. These were homeless shelter directors, case managers, mentors, and community leaders who worked with homeless youth on a regular basis. They taught us some important information that gave us enough knowledge to start wireframing, namely:

  • Homeless youth, for the most part, do not refer to themselves as “homeless”. The stigma surrounding the term makes their jobs more difficult in that it is difficult to directly target a population who doesn’t identify as that necessarily.

  • Shelter and resource centers’ primary form of outreach is social media, because young people, regardless of their home life, access it as much as possible.

  • There are a lot of resources in the area, there is, however, no comprehensive way to access these resources.


Our initial wireframes were designed around the idea that we could create a means for homeless youth to find nearby shelters and resources. We designed these half-heartedly, wanting to make a difference but strongly feeling as though these could only resonate with people who would be able to access them, and knowing our user base would definitely not be able to.


We realized the next step was the only step we could take as designers: to conduct a usability test and see how and if these initial designs were resonating with users. So we prepared and refined these higher fidelity mock ups and headed to Doorways, a shelter in Fairfax, Virginia that serves women and families who are victims of abuse, prepared for these designs to fail.


Our usability test had two key focuses:

1) to find out if and how our users accessed the internet - we asked tons of questions about their background, phone and computer usage (if any), and

2) to see if this idea - one of finding localized resources in an easy-to-use way resonated with users at all.

Our findings completely floored us. We walked into that shelter with pre-conceived notions about not only what homelessness looks like, but what it means to be homeless. We sat across people who looked exactly like us, our colleagues, classmates, or the person we sit across in the metro. When we asked about their phone usage, they pulled out iPhone 7s. When we asked about their data plans, they told us about AT&T and Verizon plans that were the same as ours. When we asked them what websites they frequented, they showed us the friends they followed on Instagram and Facebook.


Using affinity mapping, we processed our test results and turned them into action items that would inform what our product would become. There was one thing I could not move past, though. As designers, we are trained to have empathy in the work that we do. Often, this empathy for users gives us enough of a starting point to begin problem solving. What happened here? Why didn’t that work?

What happened here was that empathy was not enough. When empathy is rooted in a privilege that keeps you from leaving your comfort zone to interact with and understand your users, your empathy can become an impediment. It can prevent you from doing your job properly, because you will, inevitably, be designing for users you don’t know.

The only way to truly have empathy as a designer is to seek empathy by getting to know your users. And the only way you can really know your users is to meet them where they are. So go! Go to homeless shelters, healthcare facilities, and counseling services. Go to street intersections and schools, to parks and museums and coffee shops. Find your users. Talk to them. Understand them.

And then start to build a product that they will love!