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ACM SIGCHI WWW Human Factors (Open Discussion)


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"ACM SIGCHI WWW Human Factors (Open Discussion)" <[log in to unmask]>
Peter Merholz <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 5 Nov 1999 14:17:49 -0800
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Peter Merholz <[log in to unmask]>
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I posted a brief thoughtpiece on empathy in interaction design to my
personal website, but I realized that not only do I not have the answer, I
don't even know the question. So I'm posting it here, 'cause I'd like to
hear what the community has to say around this issue. It also pretty
strongly disses Usability As Usual, and I'd like to know if folks think I'm
way off base...

A while back, a fellow information architect and I were discussing whether a
mutual acquaintance could do the type work we do. We agreed that while he
was a very talented designer and writer, a practiced aesthete, he lacked an
essential quality that any user advocate must have--empathy. A successful
interaction designer has to not simply suppress his own personality, but
must eagerly endeavor to understand the needs, desires, and methods of his
potential users. For better or worse, empathy is not a trainable skill--you
either have it or you don't.

And while this need for empathy seems obvious, I've never seen it discussed
in anything I've read on user-centered design. As someone in the process of
hiring interaction designers, I'd love to have an empathy test I could give
potential candidates, not that I'd know where to start in developing such a

Continuing this thoughtwander, what frustrates me so much about typical
usability engineering is a lack of empathy. Users aren't seen as people, but
as subjects, as an Other. Usability engineers don't endeavor to truly
empathize with the user's needs and desires. Instead they use accepted
methodology (time-to-completion studies, think-aloud user tests, heuristic
evaluation) to create an abstract model of the user that neglects the
audience's true humanity.

Peter Merholz, Creative Director,
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