Empathy as Design Value

March 23rd, 2010 Leave a Comment

Cornified AppsLab!

Probably the most memorable session for me at SXSW, at least in terms of nuggets I can take away and use, was How to Design for the 15 Minutes presented by Rob Goodlatte  (@rsg) of Facebook and Daniel Burka (@dburka) formerly of Digg.

The slides make a little more sense when read side-by-side with liveblogged notes.

The gist of the session was how to design for initial impressions, and one helpful suggestion was to design with empathy (not sympathy). As development, we naturally design for users, i.e. those people who are using the app, not for people encountering it for the first time; hence the session title.

Designing for first impressions is difficult because we, as development, can’t have that experience. So, we must rely on the experiences of testers to guide design, and we must practice empathy when distilling their feedback.

Frankly, we need to practice empathy from the beginning.

Although first-time usage isn’t equally critical for all products, it can have a positive (or negative) effect on your product. For example, people are usually required to use enterprise software; right/wrong/indifferent, the lack of choice in the matter means less emphasis on the first-time experience.

First impressions don’t only apply to first-time users. They also apply to redesigns and upgrades in much larger measure because of user investment.

A redesign or upgrade that forces existing users to relearn certain aspects of how to use the product has caused them to invest more, which is generally met with annoyance, at best.

Facebook is probably the biggest target for user revolt against redesigns, and this irony wasn’t lost in the session. Facebook succeeds despite the fact that they ignore the investments of their users and launch major redesigns.

In another session focused on Amazon’s design, we learned that Amazon takes the opposite approach with new features, trickling them out to small user populations over the course of months before fully launching them.

Two very different approaches for two very different sites. Facebook can afford to force users to invest more because they are the de facto social network with very little competition, and their users have invested too much to switch or quit.

Amazon is one of many sites users can use to buy goods online; they have more competition and therefore, more to lose by angering users. It’s fairly easy to quit Amazon and find equivalent functionality elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the ReadWriteWeb/Facebook login fiasco came up as an example during the session. This is an example of deeply ingrained, learned behavior that is nearly impossible to address with design.

Noodling on this further, it’s funny that Google has become a beacon for design.

The single search box is the result of quick-and-dirty, not studied design. From Fast Company:

But the original home-page design was dumb luck. In 1998, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were consumed with writing code for their engine. Brin just wanted to hack together something to send queries to the back end, where the cool technology resided. Google didn’t have a Web master, and Brin didn’t do HTML. So he designed as little as he could get away with.

Obviously, simple was good enough, and Google’s better search results made it seem like genius. Today, Google has usurped the browser’s address bar as the way to navigate the internets.

New design paradigms like Chrome’s new tab page and Safari’s top sites try to chip away at this learned behavior, but how many users actually see these features, let alone use them?

So, this paradigm is wrong, but it’s one that must be accounted for in design. I guess in this case by the Facebook’s SEO.

Only empathy works for this. We, as development, know certain behaviors are flawed, but when they are so common, you either have to design for them, or give up on certain user segments.

This applies to the IE6 debate too.

Even how you choose to cut ties with users involves empathy or lack of it.

A quick search will show you a wide range of choices from open disdain to snark to information.

Anyway, the coming of the iPad seems to have reinvigorated the empathy movement among developers, and I, for one, am glad to see its return. Not to be preachy, but it’s good to remember what we do is difficult.

Find the comments.

Oh, almost forgot. This blog is now Cornified. I used the WordPress plugin. Figure out the rest on your own :)


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