June 05, 2003

Themes in User Experience, Part 2: Empathy

A long time ago, I wrote that "non-empathic geeks become engineers, and empathic geeks become information designers." Empathy is a critical quality for people working in the user experience field. We've developed numerous tools, from contextual inquiry to usability testing, to help us get inside the heads of the people who will be using our systems.

Through our empathy, we inevitably become advocates for our users. When people in the organization try to get end-users to do things they would have no reasonable interest in doing, we pipe up, saying, "You can't expect people to do that! They have no motivation for it, there's no value in it for them!" When people in the organization dismiss those who can't use a product as "stupid users", we shout, "They're not stupid! They're just being people! They're being themselves. You haven't bothered to understand the context in which they're using it, their capabilities, their desires. Don't call them 'stupid'!"

And then we often turn around, and complain about those "stupid engineers" or "stupid marketers" or "stupid management." They don't understand anything. They're just making our jobs harder.

It's a little ironic, no?

In the last couple of years, pretty much since starting Adaptive Path, I've realized that we user experience types need to expand our empathy beyond our end-users, and to include our colleagues (or clients) as well. It's surprising how willing we are to deal with the idiosyncracies of our user population, and yet so unwilling to really understand the perspectives of those we work with--Why they make certain decisions, what pressures and motivations they have, because of whatever means by which they are measured.

If we dismiss our colleagues and clients, they will dismiss our efforts. All designers have had the experience of their designs not seeing the light of day. And, in my experience, that's largely due to the designers focusing solely on their processes and their users, and not aware of the internal realities in which this design must take root.

The empathy we show our users helps make our designs better... But if we want to make sure our designs get implemented and get out in the world, then we need empathy for our colleagues.

Posted by peterme at 03:55 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack


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