Empathy Principles Research

What Having a Spaceship in Your Closet Has to Do With User Experience

Originally posted on Medium.

When I was a kid, I used to play a lot of pretend.

I had a detective’s office, a spaceship, a courtroom, a school, a halfway house for distressed teens, a tax office, a secretly-trained assassins’ bureau, a chemistry lab, a movie production studio, a radio station, and a doctor’s office.

Adults told me I had a great imagination, and my friends enjoyed playing with me. We left our 8-year-old bodies and became nurses, judges, detectives, and talk show hosts. In our play, we were made to feel, act, and speak differently from the way we would in our real lives.

We went through great lengths to make everything as realistic as possible. The spaceship was perhaps our most distinguished effort. My friend, Hadas, and I worked tirelessly on it while my mother was at work. We used a roll of aluminium foil we had purchased with our pocket money and taped it to the inside walls of a closet which was used to store winter clothes.

We printed the astronomy section of a CD-ROM encyclopedia and stored the pages inside a foil “computer” that spit out useful information about the planets on which we landed. Irresponsibly, we attached a desk lamp to the ceiling of my closet and sat in the terrible heat as we escaped into space and into our missions.

Naively, we thought these objects and environments made our games real. We worked hard to collect all the necessary props: stamps, forms, hacked school boards, stationery, fax machines, and tape recorders. When we grew up and started using all these objects at our real, grown-up jobs, we realized it was nothing like we’d imagined it to be.

This is because, during play, we set our own constraints and decided our own rules. In the “real world,” we had to do things that were useful for the job, not just the things that were interesting or enjoyable. Working in an office was nothing like playing, neither was being a teacher, and especially not doing taxes.

So what does this have to do with user experience?

Guessing how to design or build something for someone else is like pretending to be a nurse or a detective. When we mentally try to put ourselves in the shoes of our users, we are still us. We can try our best to imagine their experiences and needs, but we will always be free to choose the parameters we think apply to those experiences.

During a recent research project, I was interviewing people about the process of deciding where to go out on weekends. We thought this would be really simple. After all, how much complexity can be involved in rounding up some friends to share a cocktail or a game of bowling?

I was entirely unprepared for what I was going to hear. When I asked one woman how she plans get-togethers with family, she told me a story I could never have imagined myself. She lives in a community of a dozen, non-English-speaking family members, who rely on her to arrange how they spend their free time together. Planning family activities is one of her core roles in her family, she told me.

Each outing is a project she proudly orchestrates: she finds a place that would be interesting to the children who are coming (depending on their age), she takes into account the financial situation of everyone attending, she phones in advance if the group is getting larger. She also keeps a vast mental and physical collection of future outing ideas. “I take great pride in knowing I’ve set up an enjoyable time for everyone who came,” she told me, “everyone in my family relies on me to organize our time together.”

Her role in her family and community was tied to what I could only imagine as a frivolous activity, or an afterthought. Without speaking with her, I would continue to make product decisions based on that universe of assumptions. And I would be wrong.

Our imagination is grounded in who we are. Sure, child play and business assumptions share only a thin thread of similarity. But imagination works all the same: it transports us from one corner of our mind to another. It cannot transport us into the minds of others with any accuracy we can rely on.

The only way to truly understand the constraints, emotions, philosophies, and behaviors that guide our users is to get in touch with them: speak with them, observe them at work or play, and seek to find out how they’re different from us.

Otherwise, with the best of intentions, we’re only pretending to design for others.


Image credit:


What Norway’s Taxi-Driving PM Can Teach Us About Empathy

In a world where CEOs place reports before conversation, and decisions about customer service are based on statistically-significant surveys, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg rides around Oslo pretending to be a taxi driver just so he can talk to his citizens.

There’s more to this effort than meets the eye. Even if the ultimate goal were to generate positive publicity for the next round of elections, the act of putting himself in the shoes of a taxi driver may have a bigger impact than Stolenberg realized. In addition to the benefits of a face-to-face conversation, this setting alters the usual power dynamic between the Prime Minister and his people.

This change in the power dynamic is key. By choosing a role as a service provider, Stoltenberg reduced the amount of power and authority he had in each interaction. Researchers at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario found evidence to show that when people feel less power, their capacity toward empathy increases.

One of the most powerful empathy tools our brain has at its disposal is the mirror system. It’s powerful because it allows us to feel and think like someone else based on observing them. This is because the same mirror neurons fire in the brain when we take an action and when we observe someone else take the same action. This makes face-to-face interactions far more effective for empathizing with, and understanding, others. This system is believed to be responsible for feeling similar emotions but also understanding the thoughts processes and intentions of people we come into contact with.

But feeling powerful inhibits the mirror system system. If a person feels she is in a position of power relative to others around her, she is less equipped to understanding them and feel empathy toward them. When the Wilfrid Laurier University researchers put their participants in a state of feeling powerful, the mirror system was a lot less active. The opposite was also true: participants who felt powerless exhibited a lot more empathy on a neurological level.

Therefore, the Norwegian PM was probably in a much better position to truly hear and empathize with his people’s words than he would have been had he met them at his office.

We could also think about ways this applies to user experience: how can we use this concept of power dynamics to help our clients, stakeholders, and colleagues to empathize more readily with users? At Future Workshops, we are big fans of client workshops in which we ask participants to sketch user journeys, present their ideas, and accept critique from others. Perhaps there’s a lot more science to our method than we realized.

Image credit: BBC

Empathy Research

On ideas, research, & augmented reality

Would you rather design an app with a fashionable feature, or an app that someone truly needs?

Mobile apps (and websites and their digital friends) are often confused with advertisements. The mentality goes something like this: “we’ll build something with our logo on it that has cool features, looks pretty, and it will reflect well on our company.” But these projects often end up with pointless features or important things lacking.

Empathy Research

What We Reject Is Who We Are

To do good design, it’s not enough to ask what someone likes, we need to ask what they do. We need to ask what they never do. And when they tell us, ask why. And ask why again.

Likes and opinions are too fleeting to drive design. When doing user research, talking about product strategy, or trying to understand our colleagues’ obscure decision-making process, we have to dig deeper than just superficial opinions or generalizations.