Three ways to apply empathy in technology
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This concept has been resounding inside my head over the last years working in technology as a designer. My personal conclusion is that the most common underlying problem for many of the issues we try to solve in our industry are related to the lack of empathy. It’s not hard to notice how that works every day, from the politician who asks for money to build a wall to stop immigration, to the lady who yells at a waitress without any effort to feel a little bit of empathy for someone who might be having a bad day. An entire society not genuinely understanding what other person feels.
Our context is a world where technology triggers many of its changes. Technology is removing frontiers in a way we can connect with people from many different places and backgrounds with just one click. I see my nephews being raised by this technology, being aware of the problems of the world, learning skills outside school by looking youtube videos, playing video games that kids from Rusia or Japan are playing as well, at the same time. These scenes make me think that, as people creating this type of technology, our responsibility is huge! How well are we doing our job then? Are we making enough efforts to be empathetic with our society? Are we providing good changes through technology?
This brief article is not trying to provide an answer to those critical questions. This article is just about giving you three simple ideas of how you can apply empathy in your daily work, so we can be more accountable with the impact we generate in our society. Although it is mainly focused on designers, probably you will also find it valuable if you work in other areas of software development.
1. Empathy for our users
There are tons of books, techniques and fancy concepts which final goal is the same: Create empathy with final users. Over the last years, designing and creating technology from quantitive data has been an increasing need. And it makes sense, but even when data helps a lot to make less risky decisions, the right ones usually come from looking closer to who our final users are. Not just in terms of demographics, but by seeing them as what they are, people with a myriad of emotions, needs, and motivations.
See our users as real people, it’s not just about semantics or correctness. It turns to be a fascinating technique that allows us to be more aware of their insights and needs. I found in User Personas a simple but powerful tool. Over the last months in one of the products I’m leading efforts, we stopped referring to our users by roles or permission titles (admin, visitors, etc.) We replaced that with a group of people, with names, faces, and characteristics. Every User Story, requirement or piece of documentation refers to them by their names, we put a wall with their faces on it, and we see them every day. It seemed silly at the beginning, but seeing them as a group of people has helped to create a deeper connection with their needs and every solution takes that in the count.
Another way to feel empathy for users is how we process the information we receive from them. Even when quantitative data has a significant value, base the evolution of a product only on that is the opposite of empathy. We are reducing people behaviors to numbers, and that might be risky, especially if the decisions we need to make are also motivated by other factors like the need for revenues. When I was in the process to work on a roadmap a few months ago, I came up with the idea of start measuring our success by the reactions we could get from our users. “What do we want to our user to react to this?”, “What type of emotions do we want to stir?”. Seeing desired outcomes in this way changes your mindset regarding objectives, we don’t just expect to reach a number after the end of the quarter, we want to get reactions, we genuinely want to make our users feel better while using our product.
We need to be responsible with our users, and part of that responsibility is doing our best to feel their struggles and understand what they really need, which is not always what they or our stakeholders ask for.
2. Empathy for our teams and industry
I work outside Silicon Valley, my passport doesn’t help me to be closer to that place, and that makes me feel sad, not just for me, but because I know I’m not the only one in that position. Recently I read in a tweet “Talent is spread evenly across the world, opportunities aren’t,” and that’s so true. Many other industries use primary resources like mineral as the bedrock for their economy, technology’s primary resource is talent, and so much of this is wasted because the system doesn’t provide enough opportunities.
An opportunity is not only a good position in a big company, an opportunity can also be the many challenges you give to the right people to develop their abilities. We can contribute to that in many ways, by coaching or just by challenge other people to do their best, even if that means to go beyond their areas of focus.
The challenge to do our industry more evenly must be everybody’s responsibility.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to be part of a small team who got a certain level of independence in the way we wanted to work. It’s was an interesting challenge considering that it rarely happens in companies where most of the decisions are made abroad (USA). We lacked experience and knowhow, but we try to apply a simple idea “Whatever you do, just take in count the outputs of your work are always somebody else’s inputs.” It was simple but powerful, because it allowed us to outline a workflow where the different areas of the development process were working really close to each other, designers learning from developers really quick, developers raising their hands more often to contribute to making design decisions, testers doing pairing sessions with developers and a lot of more exciting stuff. Then, it wasn’t rare that some people started to move across areas because they discovered new environments where they felt happier and were more skillful, I saw a lot of potential Product Managers, Designers, and Engineers in people from many different backgrounds. I learned a lot from that experience as well! Encourage for those dynamics to happen is something that most company should take the risk to try.
Nurture the industry talent is not just about giving fancy roles or positions, is also about taking care of who works next to you and help them to develop their potential.
3. Empathy as the trigger to solve the right problems
This might sound a little vague and not practical, but bear with me. The previous points were mainly about ways to solve problems in a more diverse and collaborative environment, taking care for our users, but there is something significant before reaching that point. What type of problems are we trying to solve?
I would say that this is one of the main issues of Silicon Valley. So much talent being focused mostly on low-impact problems (there are exceptions of course). When I was in San Francisco a few months ago, I saw a small group of protesters holding signs saying “One job should be enough.” How is possible that in the capital of technology, where there is such concentration of talented people so focused on solving problems of the world, there are so many people who are struggling to survive while the “talented” ones are so focused on electric scooters? Something is not working well there.
My assumption is the lack of perspective. Working in technology is not just about solving problems, it’s about doing it with the right background so we can be aware of the underlying issues our society struggles with, and that is the reason why diversity is so important. For example, the immigration problem shouldn’t be a problem if you consider that many of its causes could be solved addressing them correctly. Once I heard to a wise old man called José Mujica (former Uruguayan president) say something so insightful: “Europa is trying so hard to keep Africans outside their borders, when they should be working hard to make Africa as rich as they are, then they are not just solving a problem, but they are creating a huge new market”. Of course, it’s hard to ask Europeans to be aware of those challenges and insights when their background and context is so limited, which brings me again to the importance of empathy, and the role of diversity.
We have the power to solve problems, but our responsibility should steer to solve the right ones, and there is where we are not doing a good job
Engineers, designers, managers, we are all problem solvers and based on how much technology is improving, we are not bad at it. But that doesn’t mean that we are doing the best for our world. If we are not focused on solving the right problems, the ones which are the true cause of the many issues our society suffers from (which most of them are actually good business opportunities!) then we will continue filling the streets with more electric scooters while signs asking for a better life will keep being raised in the streets. As Uncle Ben said: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Thanks for reading!