Empathy and the human-factor in design

Last week, An Event Apart (AEA) kicked off its 2015 tour right here in our fair city, and the team here at ICS had the pleasure to attend. As usual, it was jam-packed with insights, analysis, and some great laughs, all centered around the latest thinking and approaches regarding web and interface design. AEA always does a great job of bouncing between tactics and techniques, and high-level, where-is-design-going presentations, and this year was no exception. And, running through a majority of the presentations were constant reminders that the work we do isn’t about latest technology or trends, but rather it’s about better understanding the people on the other side of the interaction.

In other words, it’s not about the technology, stupid, but about how, why, and when this intersects with the lives of human beings.

I know, sounds obvious, right? But as designers we easily get swept up in our insulated design-worlds, forgetting that the products and interfaces we’re creating aren’t for us: they’re for someone else. And this someone else may not be lying casually across a bed, with a 15” macbook pro, wearing comfy clothes, with no other distractions in sight (for reference).

We don’t get to tell our users how to use our products, they do. We cannot control the scenario in which users will need to access our sites. We don’t want our users to have to really think about the sites, or technology, at all: we want the experiences we create to feel natural, to feel effortless, to be invisible. They’re not really thinking about the website, they’re thinking about what’s on the other side of that click.

Some ways that this was really well illustrated include:

  • Eric Meyer’s eloquent, and at times painful, demonstration that the conditions for our user aren’t always ideal, and they may not currently have focus or attention needed to navigate your site the way you feel they should.
  • Josh Clark telling us how technology should enhance and amplify our humanity; that screens can become a barrier between us and our surroundings. We as designers should strive to remove the screen from the equation and allow users to interact as directly as possible with the world around us.
  • Mat Marquis’ assertion that when we tell the user that they’re not using our websites the “right way”, we’re breaking the 4th wall, making them think about the website, not about the experience they’re attempting to have or the content they’re looking to consume.
  • Derek Featherstone illustrating how the user’s context (such as time, location, state of mind, device, and proximity) has a major impact on a user’s expectations and experience. Providing different content, or contextual information, based on a user’s context can turn a mundane web experience into an incredibly relevant and effective one.
  • Sarah Parmenter’s wise observation that an effective social media campaign is based on the psychology of social behaviors, not on what the current technology is. Communicating honesty & authenticity across social channels is why brands like Free People and Warby Parker are so effective at creating lifestyle brands that users feel they’re a part of.

At the end of day, our users don’t really care about the device or the interface: they want the content, interaction, or experience that the devices promise, delivered in as effortless, and perhaps delightful, way possible.

As designers, one of the greatest tools in our toolkit is increasingly becoming empathy: the ability to think like, or put oneself in the shoes of, someone else.

We need to be asking questions such as:

  • What is the experience really like for the end user?
  • What other distractions might they be dealing with?
  • Where might they physically be?
  • Could their intentions change depending on time of day, or location?

We need to be sure that we’re not just reinforcing our own assumptions about design, and really designing experiences for real people in real-world scenarios. By baking empathy for our users into our design process, we can more quickly arrive at solutions that are designed for actual people, not just canned personas.

The more we can understand our users as people, the more we can deliver truly tailored, truly magical, or — what should be our baseline — easy and effective experiences that actually enhance our users’ lives, or simply move out of the way and let them get on with their day to day activities.

Other stray takeaways:

  • In the great SVG vs. Icon Fonts war, SVG has emerged victorious
  • Swag alert:While I was bummed to discover that there’d be no lunchbox to add to my collection, I was perhaps even more delighted to discover a portable phone charger — which I’ve been meaning to get for some time now.
  • Brad Frost’s atomic design is, in my opinion, the most effective and holistic way to represent a system-oriented approach to interface that I’ve seen.
  • I’ve really got try Sketch
  • Josh Clark’s observation that the most amazing, magical interfaces we can dream up are already ingrained in our culture, through centuries of fairy tales, cartoons, and science fiction, was right-on.
  • Chris Coyier managed to make a presentation on the merits of SVG one of the funniest of the event, and was a great way to close us out.