Finding The Human Story: Applying Empathy To Online Desk Research

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  • by Lesley Pritchard

At SEEK we don’t just apply empathy in face-to-face situations, but use it as a lens to approach all aspects of our work - even online desk research - because if we can connect you to the real people you serve, then you have the opportunity to make a profound difference in their lives.

For this reason, we were recently asked to explore the growing trend of single person households and the rise of “solitary” behavior. The client came to us because they wanted more than just facts and figures. They wanted a brief, but deep, snapshot of the trend and knew that we would bring it to life in a rich storytelling format combining words, imagery and human insight. In other words, they wanted to get the human story.

As a first step, we quantified the trend using readily-available and reliable sources such as US census data (FYI it is enormous, affects men and women almost equally, and is still growing - over one in four American households is now a single person household - just think of all the different and potential unmet needs!).

Then, we synthesized the findings and brought them to life in a “SEEK” way. Here are three things we did to achieve this:

  1. We looked for the root cause. Almost all human motivation can be laddered up to a small set of basic, underlying human needs and desires - such as the need for survival or connection. SEEK spent years researching and developing an in-house tool that we apply as a “lens” to our work, which we use to ask “why?”. Why is this happening? What might be at the root of it?
  2. We triangulated and looked for other places where this phenomenon is showing up - such as eating alone and traveling alone - and looked at what is driving these trends. (In this case we found that people were seeking fun and new experiences - and sometimes DISconnection from the stress of our digital lives).
  3. We pulled it together in a story-telling format (“Here is what we expected/Here is what we found/Here is what it implies”), and brought it to life with entertaining examples of socio-cultural phenomena that illustrate the trend such as movies, advertisements and restaurants (eg Eenmaal, the world’s first one-person restaurant in Amsterdam.).

As you can tell, this is highly-engaging and fun work all around!

Given this topic was about disconnection, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that while more and more people are choosing to live alone (thanks to improvements in technology and living standards), real face-to-face, human connection remains vital and affects all of us. So, with that in mind, let us leave you with the following parting thoughts:

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,”[...] Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.” (Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University). [source]

“Psychologist Steve Cole, who studies how social environments affect gene expression, says researchers have known for years that lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s and other ills. … last year, Cole and his colleagues at the UCLA School of Medicine, along with collaborators at the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago, uncovered complex immune system responses at work in lonely people. They found that social isolation turned up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection.” (Amy Ellis Nutt, Washington Post) [source]