Problem Spaces, Understanding How People Think, and Practical Empathy with Indi Young — DT101 E6

Welcome to the Design Thinking 101 podcast! I’m Dawan Stanford, your host. Today’s guest is the remarkable Indi Young, author of Mental Models and Practical Empathy. Indi was a founder at Adaptive Path, and is one of the design field’s leading visionaries on how we develop an understanding of what people are trying to accomplish, and how to represent it in ways that support innovation.

Indi’s background is in computer science, in which she has a degree from Cal Poly. In our conversation, Frederick S. Leichtershe explains how her time there contributed to her learn-by-doing philosophy, as well as her interest in understanding what goes through people’s minds. She’ll also dig into what it means to research problem space, what practical empathy is and how to use it, and how to develop and maintain an understanding of how people think as an ongoing basis for.

Indi is focused on the same thing she’s been focused on all her life, but with a changing vocabulary around it: understanding the problem space. As you’ll hear, she tries to pull the problem space further and further away from the solution space to create a broader understanding. Problem-space research, as she points out, is evergreen. By splitting it off from being solution-focused, Indi hopes to bring attention to what people are actually doing.

In our conversation, you’ll also hear about the ways in which empathy is more complex than sympathy or compassion. Indi compares the various aspects of empathy to a skilled worker with tools rolled up in a bundle. When the worker needs to use a tool, he or she unrolls the bundle and pulls out exactly the right tool from its individual pocket. This, Indi points out, is similar to empathy, which you use differently in different situations.

Indi also digs deeply into the important ways in which empathy is different from emotional contagion, which many people don’t realize is a separate concept. She shares how important it is to support someone as part of empathy, rather than simply to feel what another person is feeling. Tune in to learn more about all of this and much more,

Learn More About Our Guest

Indi Young
@indiyoung on Twitter
Indi Young on LinkedIn
Adaptive Path
@AdaptivePath on Twitter
Indi’s newsletter sign up

Show Highlights

[01:38] We learn more about what Indi is doing now, as well as why she focuses on the problem space instead of the solution space.
[06:02] Indi shares some of her background and talks about how it has influenced her.
[09:10] Indi talks about making what other people call “personas,” but which she calls “behavioral audience segments” or “thinking styles.”
[11:13] The book Mental Models has been really important to Dawan, he reveals. We then hear about how Indi’s ideas have developed between that book and her newer one, Practical Empathy.
[15:35] A lot of people are conflating emotional contagion with emotional empathy, Indi points out, and clarifies the difference.
[19:59] We hear more about the support piece of emotional empathy.
[23:36] Indi talks about her listening sessions (which she used to call “interviews”), and why she changed the vocabulary.
[27:17] Not judging people can be difficult on the airline side, Indi explains, and talks about how one can treat others with more empathy.
[32:58] Indi points out a phenomenon that when you’re in a position of authority, the person you’re talking to will try to please you, impress you, or tell you what you want to hear.
[35:00] Indi talks more about behavioral audience segments.
[40:56] The method that Indi has been discussing also emphasizes context. She offers a couple of examples of the relevance of context.
[44:07] How do characters, in the sense that Indi has been describing, float into the separation between the problem space and the solution space?
[46:19] Has Indi changed the way she thinks about multi-functional teams from a design standpoint?
[48:24] We hear about Indi brings people into a unique collaborative moment or space.
[52:36] What are some of the challenges that Indi is facing now, whether exciting or frustrating?
[55:52] Indi shares some of the things that have helped her get her clients comfortable with the kinds of investments needed to do the work she has been describing.
[62:41] Where can people find out more about Indi and her work? In her answer, she talks about how to get a discount on her books.


Indi Young
@indiyoung on Twitter
Indi Young on LinkedIn
Adaptive Path
@AdaptivePath on Twitter
Indi’s newsletter sign up
Mental Models by Indi Young
Practical Empathy by Indi Young
Practical Empathy audiobook by Indi Young
Describing Personas by Indi Young (Medium article)
Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray
Against Empathy by Paul Bloom
Up (2009 film)
Brené Brown on Empathy
Inside Out (2015 film)
“Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” by Eric Meyer
Rosenfeld Media

Tell me how the show helps you.

Photo of Dawan Stanford

Your ideas support and develop the show. Tell the world how the Design Thinking 101 Podcast has helped you think and solve like a designer. Then, tell me how I might make it even more helpful.

Cheers ~ Dawan

Fluid Hive's Designing Faciltiation Course

Are you ready to design outstanding events that will engage participants and get the outcomes you need? Fluid Hive's Designing Facilitation Course is a step-by-step design thinking-fueled system for creating and leading events, workshops and meetings that solve problems, save money, and protect your reputation.

Designing Facilitation gives you 32 lessons that walk you through answering our Event Design questions, and 28 Event Design Practice Tools that help you immediately apply your learning. Dawan also offers examples and insight from his decades of experience leading events for thousands of people everywhere from the White House to packed ballrooms, cozy workshop rooms, and online spaces with remote participants.

Design Thinking 101 Courses — Framing

In this self-paced, online course, Framing: Creating Better Solutions by Finding More Valuable Problems to Solve, you will learn to create more effective solutions by understanding the problem you are trying to solve. This is the first course in Fluid Hive's Design Thinking 101 Courses Series.

Creating effective solutions begins with understanding the problem we are trying to solve. Is this problem worth solving? Where should we look to understand our problem? What’s happening inside this problem? How do we define the problem? How do we adjust problem framing as we go? During the course, you will learn to answer these questions and apply them to your work.

Resources — Thinking and Solving Like a Designer


Ask Like a Designer — Monthly articles with design ideas, methods, frameworks, templates, and a question-fueled approach to design-driven innovation. Discover new ways to think and solve like a designer.

Sample pages from inside Fluid Hive's Innovation Shield


Download Fluid Hive's Innovation Shield: a guide to avoiding innovation traps by asking 9 of Fluid Hive's Design Thinking Questions.

Your Ask Like a Designer Studio

Your Ask Like a Designer Studio connects you with people interesed in thinking and solving like a designer.

Enjoy invitations to free, live Studio events. Receive articles, Design Thinking 101 podcast updates, tips, tools, templates, workshop information, and more to help you create and perform!

Innovation Smart Start Webinar

Your next project could be easier, faster and more effective if you play smart at the start. In this webinar Dr. Dawan Stanford will teach you ways to ask like a designer so your projects succeed more often and your revenue grows.