Friday, December 28, 2007

Empathetic Design

I'm on the subway on my way to work this morning and arrive and Downtown Crossing (where I switch from the orange to the red line). As I get off the train I can hear the music of some subway performer. As I walk past the musician I recognize him. Turns out he is a guy I used to go to high school with, Andrew. We talked for a few minutes and apparently he still lives in our hometown and when he isn't playing coffee shops and the like, he comes to Boston to make a little extra cash on the side. Interesting, I thought. We talked for a few minutes about trivial things and then I got back on my way to work, and he got back to his.

As I'm waiting for the red line train, I run into my company's administrative assistant (who also waitresses at an upscale restaurant in Cambridge at night), who is also on her way to work. I have talked with her here and there, but never at any great length about anything. We spent the 30 minute journey to work talking about (what else?) work. The interesting stuff came when she started to tell me about why she is working as an administrative assistant there. Turns out she has a degree in teaching and interior design, but wanted to get into product design, and figured that an administrative job at the company would be a great way to learn about the industry. Go figure.

The reason that I am sharing these two encounters is that they display how different people's lives are. I know, "Duh". But for me, I understood this fact only at a macro level, not at a micro level. I mean, I knew our lives were different in some ways and similar in others, but I really couldn't articulate what those were. I feel that many of us fall into the same trap. It's likely considering that 90% of our interactions are with similar people, be they friends, family or coworkers. Stepping outside of this comfort circle of contacts and trying to understand someone different from you requires actual work, but it can be an enriching experience; enriching in the sense that by being empathetic towards others you can see the world through a different set of eyes. Let me tell you, when your profession/passion is designing products, services, or experiences for others, that empathy an invaluable tool. Unbeknownst to me, being my ambivalence towards learning about others lives on anything deeper than a superficial level was wasting a golden opportunity to exercise my empathetic muscle.

Well here is my resolution: make a conscious effort to understand the details of the lives of others, so that I naturally empathize with others. There is no doubt in my mind that this understanding will lead to higher quality designs that accurately addresses the issues that the user faces.

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