Empathy In Design and Development

Empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner;

— –Merriam-Webster

How many times have we told a teammate or a potential client “that’s easy” or “piece of cake” when it comes to doing something like a WordPress theme or installing a web server from source? Even if you have the data to back up the assertion that it’s easy we may still come across as arrogant or “know it all” and they would probably be right.

I saw this video after I had a conversation about WordPress development where I claimed that customizing a WordPress theme should not be complicated and how I’ve done multiple customizations using different techniques to do so.

Then it made me think…. How hard was setting up a WordPress installation in 2006 when I posted the first content in my blog? I remember why I moved away from Movable Type and I realized that I take those beginner experiences for granted and dismiss them quickly because I’ve already done this a hundred times.

This is also when I hear when I hear Tal Oppenheimer and Bruce Lawson speak about the next Billion users. We take connectivity for granted and believe we will always be able to optimize our applications to get the best speed possible.

There are cultural issues: Bruce makes a point that there are some people in Thailand who use one name only; if we require a first and last name in a form (for example to pay for an item) people will either lie or not use your application. What other similar gems hide behind your application’s users?

WWW: World Wide Web, not Wealthy Westerners’ Web

— Bruce Lawson

So how do we become more empathetic as designers?

I know this will come like an arrogant asshole but please bear with me.

The first step is to remember who we are doing this for. It may be you in 6 months, your circle of developer friends in your town or developers halfway across the world. They are people and they may do things differently than we do.

I remember that when I first started teaching how to build online courses a trainer form the High Tech Center Training Unit of the California Community Colleges showed videos of users with disabilities working with online courses. It was an eye opening and humbling experience. Things I took for granted when using keyboard and mouse were a whole different experience when using the keyboard as the only navigation tool.

So we need to account for our users. We’ll look at it from different aspects:

  • research
  • design
  • accessibility
  • tools and process