We Need More Empathy

For a while now I’ve been beating the “empathy” drum (notes), trying to get folks in our industry to understand the importance of creating connections with the people for whom we build software, websites, etc. After all, we design and build tools to solve the needs of actual people, not some generic “user”.1

It’s tough to connect with other people and we often fall into the trap of designing products for us and people like us. Jeffrey Zeldman characterizes the problem perfectly in his recent post:

If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.

Empathy is difficult when we are surrounded by others like us. We need to be surrounded by different people. Certainly gender and ethnic diversity is incredibly important here, but so is diversity of experience. As Jeffrey astutely points out, diversity in the room where Facebook’s “Year in Review” concept was given the green light would have—I have to hope—helped create some safeguards to keep some of their actual customers from being reminded of tragedies they experienced this year.

In all likelihood, the worst thing they probably discussed was an embarrassing hookup being celebrated, but I’ve had several friends lose children and loved ones this year, other friends battling serious illnesses, and still others who have suffered losses of different sorts. All bore their souls on Facebook in the past year and this feature has brought it back and, in some cases, celebrated these tragic events in a very uncanny and dispassionate way.

And Facebook isn’t the only company to blame for this sort of thing. Pretty much every social network suffers from similar issues. Reading the comments on the various press accounts of this story have revealed similar problems at LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, and others. We can and need to do better.

In order to address these issues, we need to flex our empathetic muscles. We need to create connections with people who are not like us. People who live in different neighborhoods. People who come from different countries. People who require alternate means to accessing our sites and services. We need to see that the world is full of differences.

Life is full of great joy as well as great tragedy. When we acknowledge diversity of experience and actually embrace it, we become better designers.

  1. I don’t mind the aggregate “users”, but “user” is too clinical and distanced for my tastes. Terms like “the user” keep us from connecting with the people who actually use our software and when we are disconnected from our users, we will not do a great job of solving their problems. And solving problems is the whole point of design. ↩︎


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