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"ACM SIGCHI WWW Human Factors (Open Discussion)" <[log in to unmask]>
Scott Berkun <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 8 Nov 1999 21:58:00 -0800
Scott Berkun <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (92 lines)
I agree with your points. I think empathy is often implied or assumed,
rather than explictly stated. Probably too often.

It's easy for designers, or any professional creative person, to fall into
traps of arrogance. There is a power in designing things, and there is a
natural selfishness that, unchecked, promotes a narrowing of perspective.

Since much usability literature comes from cognitive psychology folks, it's
not surprising that a clinical and analytical vocabulary pervades usability
discussions. Abstraction is great for analysis, lousy for compassion.

I wrote about this selfish design bias in my first column up on - it offends me to quote myself (talk about
traps of arrogance), but it seems appropriate to the thread:

"..People like us who build things for a living are intimate with the
technology and have a mental model for how it works. It's our job to know
this stuff and we take pride in it. The problem comes when we design how the
thing is operated. Because our eyes are biased toward how it was built, the
complexity of the inner workings is revealed in the interface. Internal
representations become external. Concepts that are familiar to our
development team are quietly assumed to be familiar to everyone. Most people
who make things spend most of their time with other people who make things
and not with the people who will use them. We tend to look at the product
from the inside out and unintentionally design it that way. This can happen
no matter how smart or hardworking we are. The second thing I realized was
that talented, hardworking people make bad interface design decisions all
the time.

To make something that is useful, we have to invest energy in thinking
broadly and maintaining perspective. It takes effort to understand how
someone unlike ourselves thinks about the world and, as interface designers,
that is exactly what we need to do. We have to research how the product will
actually be used and understand which assumptions we can honestly make. It's
a challenge to design something that might not suit our own needs and still
be confident that it satisfies someone else's. It requires that we think
about how we think about designing something. It's not working harder, it's
working smarter. The last insight is that we have to make an explicit effort
to think about how design decisions are made, and to learn better techniques
for making them."



-----Original Message-----
From: Peter Merholz [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Friday, November 05, 1999 2:18 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Empathy in Interaction Design

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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