Empathy, deconstructed

Psychology is just one of many areas designers can sometimes stray into for guidance or assistance. Anything which reminds us that we are flawed humans, attempting to design useful things for other humans is a good thing.

Carl Rogers’ Person-Centred Therapy (PCT) makes for interesting reading for the modern design professional. Rogers’ innovative approach, now over 50 years old, ran counter to the remote and detached forms of psychotherapy prevalent at the time. Specifically, PCT contains a number of principles that align with key qualities of effective design thinkers and problem-solvers.

The approach features three core conditions, each of them with direct relevance to the creation of positive user experiences.

One of Roger’s core conditions is unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR is “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”. Substitute person for user and you have a pretty good foundation for user-centred design. As design luminary Don Norman has put it, “what we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.” Which sounds like UPR in so many words.

Another condition is congruence; “the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade”. The parallel in design might be a desire to facilitate top tasks, and present easy paths to goals without the clutter of marketing or sales to present obstacles.

The essence of user-centred design is appreciating users as humans with needs, goals and limited time on their hands in which to achieve them. And why must we humanise the user? In order to practice the human quality of empathy – coincidentally the third of Rogers’ core conditions.

There are increasing amounts of lip service given to empathy in our professional & social feeds. It sounds worthy and is difficult to argue against. What we don’t often see are answers to questions about how to leverage it, how to make it practical.

The imperative of empathy for designers means identifying with others enough to create something which, no matter how small, makes their life easier. UPR has huge relevance; as designers we should demonstrate a positive regard for whatever our users’ motivations and needs might be. To create meaningful product experiences which connect users with their goals, it falls on us also to treat the pursuit of those goals and associated needs with respect.

Good design demands empathy and insight. UCP provides some simple ground rules for beginning to flex that empathy muscle.

Best behaviour

Stating the obvious, lifting a smartphone and tapping any app’s icon represents a choice for the device owner – a choice between using the app, and doing literally anything else. For successful apps, use becomes habitual. More than that – for successful apps, it must become habitual.

One of the best insights I’ve seen on this topic (I don’t recall the source so unfortunately can’t give due credit) correctly stated that establishing a new habit means creating time for it. By implication, that will almost certainly require taking time and attention away from something else.

The assumption that a product will simply be used is an optimism bias that afflicts so many entrepreneurs and technologists. Viewing the challenge of designing products as not only the creation of a compelling experience, but one that impels someone to make room in their life to use it, is a sobering thought.

The ability of an app to achieve this place in someone’s life can go beyond what it offers in terms of functionality, and certainly how it looks. Every investment in a product or app, as noted by the BufferApp blog earlier this year, is an investment in a future self; a better self. For use of an app to become a habit, it must be able to deliver a desired transformation. The transformative potential of interactive technologies is something I’ve been immersed in on a number of key projects this year at Fathom.

First alerted to the resource by a blog post from Joe Leech, BJ Fogg’s Behavioural Model has been nothing short of a revelation. Like so much of what user-centred thinking brings to the table, it comes across as simple common sense, clearly articulated. And like so many of the best tools in UX work, it offers a framework around which to plan and execute design and content strategies. Think of it as an ‘Elements of User Experience‘ for behaviour change.

Fogg is a computer scientist and founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Although not intended specifically for UX work, the Behavioural Model finds a natural home in the user-centred design process.

The link with Stanford certainly imbues the model with academic credibility, putting it alongside the work of Weinschenck, Kahnemann et al as a reference point for designers wanting to leverage the power of psychology in their work. In use, the model excels as a starting point in assessing the nature of a challenge, and pointing the way to the response without authoring it outright.

Work on the models sadly appear to have stalled with no updates in a couple of years, and the detailed resource guides withdrawn from the website. But what remains is left is a godsend for designers hungry for another framework to bring structure to the design process.

User experience, not user control

Amongst the bizarre interpretations I’ve seen applied to User Experience is the notion that UX is a coercive or manipulative pursuit. You can just see the eyes of cynical marketeers* light up at the thought that some form of Jedi mind trick might be available to lead consumers trance-like to a destination not of their own choosing.

Granted, dark patterns have emerged, for those who feel that unethical practice is the way to go. But the idea of control is a false premise.

The language of user experience design has made the transition into the marketing lexicon of web design. It’s become the phrase du jour in many client conversations, too; businesses quite naturally want to know what a more informed approach to design can deliver for them. The return on investment in UX is undeniable.

In the heat of a pitch, or to satiate a demanding client, it can be tempting to paint UX design as an exact science, a precision sport. And it isn’t.

It is the path of sanity in a world of ‘inspired’ guesswork and ego-driven design indulgence. Better of course to hypothesise, test and iterate during development than to rely on guesswork, only to find out a design is ineffective when it should be making a difference for your organisation.

Any claim to control the user’s experience is however a false one, akin to claiming that traffic flow is ‘controlled’ using traffic signals and road signs. People are not predictable animals. We may be engineers of the user experience; we can guide, inform, facilitate, enable, assist, and more. But we cannot control.

As a UX practitioner, to suggest otherwise is dangerously over-promising.

 

 

* Were such a thing were to exist…