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Good Design Starts with Empathy

When I was growing up, two of my favourite TV characters were a half-human, half-Betazoid empath, and a temporally displaced scientist who hopped through time, living in other people’s lives. Points if you recognised them—Star Trek’s Deanna Troi and Quantum Leap’s Dr. Sam Beckett.

What I loved about them was their ability to experience what other people felt—Troi because she was an actual empath and could sense emotion and intent, and Beckett because he had to actually walk in other people’s shoes—and lives.

What makes good design?

In the real world, our natural ability to sense what others are feeling comes from how our brains are hard-wired. The anterior insular cortex has been found to fire up when feeling emotion for someone else. It’s why we get misty-eyed in movies, why we suffer when we see people go through devastating times, why we bask in others’ happiness. It’s what helps bond us as social creatures, and when tapped into, it’s what makes beautiful design.

Our favourite feel-good stories are those where someone does something beautiful for someone else. In UX, this is what we all aim to do through research and design. When it works well, it’s because it will have been based on empathy. We measure design success based on whether someone can do the task. Can they do it easily and repeatedly, to their satisfaction? Was it nice? Would they do it again?

The experience, not the checklist

The subject of accessibility often comes with a technical, legal, esoteric, ‘can-somebody-else-really-worry-about-this’ aura to it. It makes people’s eyes glaze over, start thinking about their grocery list, or start inching toward the nearest exit. However, over the years of working with teams and organisations, helping them raise awareness and build their capability in this area, we’ve met many advocates who have been passionate about accessibility. We have come to realise that a common trigger is watching someone struggle to use a system due to poor accessibility. We identified a shared and common purpose—to create the right experience for those people.

It’s not about checklists and compliance statements, rather it’s identifying whether it has been designed well in the first place. It’s the experience that is at the heart of what we design.

Someone once said that when you learn something really powerful, you are either expanding your content (learning more about a topic), or expanding your context (pushing your knowledge boundaries out further making you aware of how much more you need to learn). I’m a big fan of context widening. One way to do that is to experience things that show you what it’s like for other people.

First with context, then content

The following actions are how I expanded my context. In the process, I realised how much I needed to learn.

I took up roller-skating.

You know you have those old rollerblades in the back of a cupboard somewhere. They were, and still are, a great idea so get out there while it’s warm and sunny! Like me, you’ll quickly start noticing all the stairs and the availability of lifts or ramps. Oh, and the hills. People with wheels negotiate this every day with luggage, skateboards, prams and wheelchairs. You’ll find it’s nice when someone’s anticipated your needs and installed a ramp or a lift.

I learned how to be a keyboard ninja.

My keyboard shortcut habit started years ago when I suffered from a particularly nasty floating window somewhere off-screen and couldn’t get control of it. Learning the answer (Alt+spacebar then M, by the way!) blew my mind and I was hooked. It’s the simple pleasures. Mastering keyboard commands made me a lot faster at performing tasks than groping for the mouse. It helps you avoid RSI, gives you some office geek cred, and is a direct source of happiness when you figure out a new gem. I also developed an appreciation for ways to jump straight to the parts I wanted to get to, and you’ll hear me growl whenever I encounter a site where I’m forced through a bazillion tab key presses. It makes me aware of the navigation experience for people with screenreaders, mobility aides and people who prefer keyboards in general. If you’re not already a keyboard ninja, you will surprise yourself with the richness, speed and power of the mouse-free world.  

I watched videos I didn’t understand.

In a recent “YouTube-off” in the office, we pumped up the volume with Bollywood’s latest music videos. Sure enough, everyone’s first question was—what are they singing about? Thank goodness for subtitles. I’ve always loved stories from other countries, and being able to interpret them is such an enriching experience. It’s also one we take for granted because someone’s created subtitles for us. We often forget what the experience is like for people who are learning our own language, and how hard it can be to comprehend content without any help. This awareness guides us when we prepare content, frame messages, and write clearly. 

Likewise, we often forget what it’s like for someone who needs to know the dialog regardless of language. One in six people won’t be able to hear audio content, so you need to look for alternatives like captions and subtitles because you’re missing out on important dialogue and plot development.

I turned the TV on, and then didn’t watch it.

My friend and colleague Ruth Ellison and I were working on a project late one evening and decided to break for dinner. We figured we could catch up on our backlog of movies while cooking and were delighted to find a movie that came with audio descriptions. We developed an instant appreciation for the art of narrating the visuals without giving away the whole story. It’s an art in itself, and one that we appreciated.

Try it sometime—pick a movie, and then do something else and try to keep track of the story but not watch it. You’ll notice how much you can pick up just through the dialog. Then again you might also notice how much you don’t pick up, and how much of a gap there is if there’s nothing to describe what’s going on. For example, the movie "Drive” contains lots of silence and footage of Ryan Gosling looking soulful. Even if there was noise—take the fight scenes from Transformers movies, for instance—I felt as though I needed a walkthrough of who was thrashing whom.

That’s what it’s like for people who can’t see the visuals. An audio walkthrough (a narrator of sorts) would be nice, right? Radio dramas and audio books are successful for a reason. I wish it were easily available for video content too.

These are small things to encounter, but they keep my fellow accessibility champions and me aware of the impacts of the designs on our audiences in the physical and the digital world. We don’t need to be of Betazoid heritage or have access to time travel (though that would be nice). A little bit of curiosity, a lot of empathy, good old research, and careful design are what make beautiful and inclusive experiences.

I certainly hope it helps to widen your context as it did ours.

And may your boundaries always be wide.

Illustrations by Matthew Magain

Kim Chatterjee

Kim Chatterjee

Kim Chatterjee is a User Experience designer at Stamford Interactive with a background in development communication. She is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve lives and has an addiction to stories, other people's projects, and acquiring new skills even though she knows she'll probably suck at them. This time it's roller skating and thankfully she's getting better at it.

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