Inside the Empathy Trap

It’s not uncommon to find yourself closely identifying with the users you are designing for, especially if you work in consumer products. You may even find yourself exposed to the exact experiences you’re tasked with designing, as I recently discovered when I went from researching hematologist-oncologists (HemOncs) and their clinics to receiving care from a HemOnc physician in his clinic. (Thankfully, all is now well with my health.)

This led to some revealing insights. Suddenly I was approaching my experience not just as a personal life event, but as both the designing observer, taking note of every detail, and the subject, or user, receiving the care. Instead of passively observing, I focused on engaging in a walk-a-mile exercise, literally walking in my own shoes, as my own user.

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of empathy in design, but this was an extreme. I was able to identify my personal persona, watch to confirm the validity of workflows, and direct multitudes of questions to the understanding staff members. This subsequent experience can be extremely positive, but reminded me of the dangers of biases and designing solely for one person.

For instance most of my caregivers enjoyed chatting, and one even stated how fun it was to have a patient who inquired about everything. That was my reminder that most patients are not like me, not having studied this exact space, and therefore having less comfort in asking questions. I had to remember this was something unique.

When we find ourselves in these situations, we need to remember that what happens to us may enhance our knowledge, but it cannot become the only conceivable experience in our minds. Too often we can walk dangerously close to designing for ourselves or for “the identifiable victim.” However, this can cause us to lose focus on improving outcomes for “the many” by single-mindedly pursuing an individual solution to a particularly negative outcome.

A New Yorker article called “Baby in the Well” builds a case against empathy, pointing out that this can cause us to misplace our efforts, missing the needs of “the many.” It is shown that the key to engaging empathy is the “identifiable victim effect,” which is the tendency for people to offer greater aid when a specific, identifiable person, or “victim” is observed under hardship, as compared to a large and vaguely defined group with the same need. The article states:

As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

When we design, we pursue a broader type of empathy. As a colleague once said to me, designers need to identify with the whole user base. User-centricity is about the ability to recognize that there are a number of personas, each with different goals, desires, challenges, behaviors, and needs. We design for these personas, recognizing that each has different goals they’re trying to accomplish and with different behaviors in how they go about achieving them.

So what are the key takeaways from my experience?

  1. Situations that help us build empathy for our users are invaluable as it gives us deep knowledge, but we should recognize and feel empathy for many. Looking at our situations through the lenses of your multiple personas can help you avoid this trap.
  2. Remember that the empathy we look to build in design is not just about feelings, but rather about understanding goals, the reasons for these goals, and how they are or aren’t currently accomplished.
  3. Have some empathy for yourself—it’s hard to untangle our personal feelings from the work we do on a day-to-day basis. Remember, we’re all human, and we will fall into the trap of focusing on ourselves from time to time. Recognizing this and looking out for the places where it affects our work is the best we can do.

What about you—have you found yourself in similar situations? How have you approached it? Are there tricks you use or pitfalls you work to avoid? Please use the twitter hashtag #designresearch to share in the conversation.

Illustration by Cale LeRoy

Inside Goal-Directed Design: A Conversation With Alan Cooper (Part 2)

We continue our conversation with Alan Cooper at Sue and Alan’s warm and welcoming ranch in Petaluma, CA, which, in addition to themselves, is home to sheep and chickens, a cat named Monkey, and a farmer who works the land.

Part 2 brings us up to present-day, and discussions around the applications and fundamentals of Goal-Directed Design that support its success at Cooper and beyond.

From Theory to Practice­­

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Designer’s Toolkit: A Primer On Using Video In Research

In our last post, we explored a variety of methods for capturing user research. Yet a question lingered—how can you effectively use video in your research without influencing the participants?

Here are some tips and tricks to minimize the impact of using video in research engagements. Keep in mind, these tips are focused on conducting research in North America—the rules of engagement will vary based on where you are around the world.

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Designer’s Toolkit: A Primer On Capturing Research

You’ve been preparing for your research—recruiting, screening participants, devising schedules, testing discussion guides—and now you are deciding the best way to capture your research. But how? If you’re busy scribbling down notes, you might miss a sound byte. If you film the interview, you might unknowingly influence the conversation. These are all serious considerations. Properly capturing and documenting each research encounter prevents spending time and money on data that sits solely in the memory of the researcher.

How you choose to conduct and capture your research will greatly impact your outcomes, and ultimately your client outcomes. I’m going to highlight a variety of research capturing tools, and then we’ll have a future post about how to effectively videotape research. Both the type of research you’re conducting and its purpose will help you decide which capture method is best.

Before we begin, I wouldn’t recommend going into research alone—you will struggle to document while maintaining a conversation. A good structure is to have a moderator and a note taker, that way one practitioner can focus on conversing with the participant, while the other focuses on capturing what is occurring.

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Designer’s Toolkit: Road Testing Prototype Tools

We’ve all been there: you’ve got a few days to throw together a prototype. For expedience sake, you go to one of your large, well known tools to get the job done. The files quickly become bloated and crash—hours of hard work lost. There’s got to be a way to create prototypes at a similar level of fidelity with a lighter weight tool.

After test driving some alternative prototyping tools I discovered that there are indeed other good options. Here is an overview of what I found, followed by assessments of each tool, with hopes it will help fellow designers in the prototyping trenches.

Choosing the tools

After researching existing prototyping tools, I narrowed a long list of about 40 to a small set of 10 that looked the most interesting. Some factors that influenced which tools I selected include:

  • Hearing about the tool from fellow Cooperistas or other colleagues.
  • The popularity of the tool based on what I read in other blogs.
  • Whether it looked cool or exciting from my first impression of the design and features.

This is not a comprehensive set of tools, but includes the ones that I was interested in checking out.

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UX Boot Camp with Marketplace Money

Old School Radio Meets the Digital Age

Take a look inside Cooper’s June, 2013 UX Boot Camp with American Public Media’s Marketplace Money radio show, where students explored the next horizon of audio programming—a paradigm shift from broadcast to conversation-based platforms.

The Challenge
Students rolled up their sleeves to help the show respond to the trend away from traditional radio by finding the right mix of alternative distribution platforms. Marketplace Money came equally ready to take a radical departure from their current format in order to create a new model that redefines the roles of host, show, and audience in the digital age. To reach this goal, students focused on designing solutions that addressed three big challenges:

  1. Engage a new, younger audience that is tech savvy, and provide easy access to content via new platforms, such as podcasts, satellite radio shows, and the Internet.
  2. Inspire audience participation and contribution. Facilitate conversations and inspire people to share their personal stories so that listeners can learn from each other.
  3. Design ways for the host to carry an influential brand or style that extends beyond the limits of the show and engage with the audience around personal finance, connecting with listeners in ways that are likeable, useful, and trustworthy, making the topic of personal finance cool, fun and approachable.

At the end of the four-day Boot Camp, student teams presented final pitches to Marketplace Money, and a panel of experienced Cooper designers offered feedback on their ideas and presentations.In the following excerpts from each day, you can test your own sensory preferences for receiving content as you see, hear and read how design ideas evolved at the Boot Camp, inspiring new relationships between people and radio.

Marketplace Money Class

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Applying Lean UX

We recently wrapped up a project for a startup in the digital photography space, and aside from being great design partners, one of the fun things about them was their excitement to utilize some of the Lean UX strategies and techniques that former Cooperista Josh Seiden wrote about in his bookLean UX with Jeff Gothelf. We certainly learned a lot from going through the process with this client (learning as you go is, after all, a Lean UX principle). We had some best practices confirmed, and found some new ones and nuances too. Here are just a few that we came across in going through a real-life Lean UX project.

Know your user.

In all the sprinting towards a testable product, remember: you’re designing for real people. Those real people are often not like you. Design is about empathizing with people and their problems, then coming up with solutions to solve them. In theory this is a no-brainer, but in practice this is hard. It means being disciplined about designing for your users’ real challenges, not the ones you assume they have — or even worse, the ones you really, really want them to have because it would be perfect for your business model.

With our photo product partner, we collectively identified several potential user types–sharers, documenters, savers, organizers, and a few more. But designing a super-tool that’s all things to all people wasn’t what we were after. So we chose a specific user with specific attributes, and designed the best product for them. Part of our hypothesis involved seeing if the design worked for that group, and if it did, then we’d start designing improvements for the initial user or for additional user needs.

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Explore New Interaction Paradigms at UX Boot Camp: Wikimedia

Advance and apply your UX design skills to a meaningful real-world problem in this intensive, hands-on workshop

BootCamp_WEB

This September, join Wikimedia, Cooper, and design-thinkers from around the world as we find new ways to spread knowledge through mobile Wikipedia. In this four-day workshop, you’ll use new UX skills to make mobile content contribution more approachable, intuitive, and less reliant on traditional input methods like typing. If you’ve wanted an excuse to explore new interaction paradigms and stay ahead of the design pack, this is your chance. Best of all, you get to do all of that in the creative classroom setting of Alan and Sue Cooper’s 50-acre ranch in Petaluma, CA.

Register now: UX Boot Camp: WikimediaSeptember 17-20, Petaluma, CA

What’s in it for you?

  • Learn new interaction techniques and approaches under the guidance of industry leaders, including Alan Cooper
  • Learn how to think through a problem from both a design and business perspective, rather than blindly applying methods by rote.
  • Energize your practice and make new connections by working on a real-world challenge with peers from around the world.
  • Beef up your portfolio with a smart, new design concept
  • Pick up leadership and collaboration skills that will help you better navigate your work environment.

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UX Boot Camp Goes to Europe

Guest post by Francesca Di Mari at Sketchin, a Swiss user experience design firm based in Lugano.

At  Sketchin we strongly believe that design can improve lives and foster social good. We first heard of Cooper’s UX Boot Camp when we visited Cooper in September, 2012, and we fell in love with their idea of using design to educate and foster social good by bridging design students with non-profits. This idea was conceived of and developed by Kendra Shimmell, the Managing Director at Cooper U, and it launched our determination to be part of a design revolution for social good.

Our first step was to create our own UX Boot Camp modeled after what we experienced at Cooper. So in May of 2013, together with Talent Garden Milano and Frontiers of Interaction, we organized the first Italian UX Boot Camp in Milan, modeled after the Cooper UX Boot Camp. Here is a look back at what we created and discovered in the process.

UX Bootcamp Milano 15

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Design the Future of Radio

According to popular belief, radio is dead.

It’s not; it’s just taking a different form. Instead of families gathering around a radio to hear the nightly news, people are staying informed by listening to the “All Things Considered” podcast or following Fareed Zakaria on Twitter.

So how does a radio program make the transition from on-air to online and define their role as journalists in the digital age? And how can designers influence how radio content is generated, shared, and consumed?

In the June UX Boot Camp, through experimentation and exploration, participants will redesign how listeners interact with radio content. They’ll conduct this examination through a radio program you may have heard on your local public radio station: Marketplace Money.

American Public Media’s Marketplace Money is a weekly public radio program airing locally on KQED that looks at matters of personal finance with wit and wisdom. In this particular UX Boot Camp, students will work with American Public Media’s Marketplace Money to transform the experience of radio. They’ll come up with new tools and models for engagement that encourage multi-platform participation, crowd-sourced content, and an entirely new type of relationship between listeners and show host.

Sound like a challenge you want to solve? Save your spot now.
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