Take out your credit or debit card or any card that has numbers on it. Take it in your hand, put your finger on the embossed numbers, close your eyes and try to read the numbers. Don’t rush, can you correctly identify the numbers written on the card with your eyes closed?

“User-Centred Design is surprisingly difficult. One of the biggest issues, certainly for those with no HCI or usability experience, is a lack of appreciation of how users think and work. Their assumption is that users will approach and solve problems in the same way as the designers and developers of an interactive solution”.

Now, if you are one of the few people who know their card numbers by heart, this exercise will be futile but if you are like most of us, you will fail.

These numbers are not designed for touch reading – they’re not braille – but this activity should give you a glimpse into the fact that not all people perceive the world or interact with it the way we do. According to the World Health Organisation:

  • 285 million people worldwide are estimated to be visually impaired; 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision.
  • About 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in low-income settings.
  • Approximately 90% of visually impaired people live in developing countries.

That’s how Georgiy Kassabli, iOS Accessibility Lead at Facebook started a brilliant talk on Empathy in software engineering and why it matters at the User Centred Design conference 2016 (UCD). This post is a summary of that session.

Empathy nowadays is becoming trendy – “Business empathy”, empathy training etc. But why is it important? How does it influence product development? And most importantly how do we integrate empathy into business culture?

Georgiy talked about the disconnect between the way creators experience their products and the way users do and that’s damaging to user experience. The ability to empathise with users is a crucial part of a UX designer’s make-up. Unfortunately, disconnect isn’t the only reason much of designers’ work fails to take the intended users, their needs, and feelings, into account, as research suggests that those working in a technological field, specifically males, have low empathy.

William Hudson (2009), in Reduced Empathizing Skills Increase Challenges for User-Centred Design, states,

“User-Centred Design is surprisingly difficult. One of the biggest issues, certainly for those with no HCI or usability experience, is a lack of appreciation of how users think and work. Their assumption is that users will approach and solve problems in the same way as the designers and developers of an interactive solution”.

Hudson referred to this designer bias as the self-as-user outlook. Most of us live in a first-world country and we have access to cutting edge technology. Statistically motor or visual impairments are rare among us. We’re a very specific and fortunate subset of the world. If we are not careful as creators, we might lose the people that don’t have the same resources as us.

The biggest problem is that this disconnect usually tends to grow.

The biggest problem is that this disconnect usually tends to grow. We are the first users of our products. When we design them, it’s natural for us to think about our users as us, we design the products for us. We think of the features that would be most useful for us.

We only get feedback from people that use our product and not from anyone else. Eventually this becomes a vicious circle. We only target and cater for a limited audience, which excludes the rest. It’s easy to break things for some when we have only ourselves in mind when designing. The best way to discover how to improve is to try to “walk in the user’s shoes”. Although it could be argued that in the context of design, empathy isn’t just about stepping into their shoes but about taking time to carry out user research and using the findings in your decision-making processes. What do your users, see, feel and experience – without that knowledge, design is not useful or beneficial to any business.

When visually impaired people use technology, computers, smartphones, they use an assistive technology called screen reader. Screen reader essentially reads aloud what is there on the screen. And when you ensure that your product is compatible with screen reader, you will go a huge way towards enhancing the value of your product for visually impaired people. Some developers create apps specifically for visually impaired users such as TapTapSee (iOS, Google Play)– designed to help visually impaired users identify objects they encounter in their daily lives. What if this app was available out-of-the-box as a feature in the default camera apps of the major phone manufacturers such as Apple or Samsung?  Would that be useful? Would it win them a larger chunk of the global consumer base?

Closing thoughts

Empathy in design is increasingly important. Most technologies are now used by people from a different cultural heritage, with different physical and mental constraints.

To become better creators, we must develop an understanding of how we can design products that appeal to, support and enable people. We will probably never be able to appreciate what it means to be each person that uses our product, but through an empathetic design approach we can come to understand how people behave, feel, and tackle the problems in their lives with the use of our products.

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