Harsh empathy

I’ve come up with similar findings in a series of studies done in collaboration with the Yale graduate student Nick Stagnaro. We start by giving people a simple test that measures their degree of empathy. Then we tell them some awful stories, about journalists kidnapped in the Middle East, about child abuse in the United States. And then we ask them how best to respond to those responsible for the suffering. In the Middle East case, we give a continuum of political options, from doing nothing to public criticism, all the way to a military ground invasion. For the domestic version, we ask about increased penalties for the abuser, from increasing their bail to making them eligible for the death penalty. Just as with the genetic study, we found that the more empathic people are, the more they want a harsher punishment.

Paul Bloom described the dark side of empathy recently in The Atlantic.

I knew immediately on reading Bloom’s article that there was something in it, something that I wanted to get it. It’s been a week since I read it, and I think I’m nearly there.

I knew, of course, that this applied to me. In the article, Bloom mentions “scans for specific genes that make people more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that are implicated in compassion, helping, and empathy.” I’ve not taken one of these tests, but as someone who has been known to cry at television commercials, I’m fairly sure that I’d test fairly highly for these genes.

The dark side Bloom discusses certainly applies to me. I immediately dislike someone hurts someone else—physically or emotionally. I may think I can hide the fact that I dislike them, but experience has proven otherwise. I’ve twice had people I once knew come up to me years later and say “I got the impression that you didn’t like me much.” They were right. In both cases, the person had once done something to a close friend. Not anything terrible, just the standard unkindness of someone who is being thoughtless.

Empathy can be a dark lens through which I view people. I don’t think I fully realised this until reading Bloom’s article. When friends and family are involved, this has affected my personal life. But I can see now that it’s affected my professional, as well.

I can recall a conversation with a colleague at a new job. Another new recruit and I had a question about some button copy. We were both fairly convinced that the copy wouldn’t be clear to our customers. It was a gut feeling on both our parts, but the copy just felt wrong. We started to discuss it with someone who had been at the company for much longer than us. His response was something along the lines of “that copy works.” It was said with absolute certainty. My immediate response was “Really?” You know the kind of “really?” I’m talking about. The kind intended to make the other person feel like an idiot, dripping with disdain.

Just as Bloom describes in the article, this disdain was coming from the right place: empathy for our customers. The reaction was over the top, though. I may have been taken aback by their certainty, but it proved well founded. It turned out, I was the idiot and I had jeopardized a relationship with a person I’d need to work with closely on a daily basis.

My first job out of high school was working for Greenpeace. I spent about a year there, but eventually left. One of the reasons I left was because of the way we talked about the people who ran companies. At a city council meeting, one of our members found herself talking to the head of a company responsible for an incinerator we were trying to shut down. It wasn’t until halfway through the conversation that she realised who he was. She told us about this during one of our meetings. She said said he was actually rather nice. Perhaps we should see if we should speak to him. She was immediately shouted down.

Greenpeace didn’t manage to shut down the incinerator, at least not while I was there. The thing I learned from being at Greenpeace is that you can’t talk to a monster, and we choose who to turn into a monster. Perhaps, though, our empathy for other people makes this choice for us.

A lot of people who do what I do for a living spend a lot of time with the customers of they companies they are working with. We spend even more time thinking about those customers. Our job is coming up with solutions with those customers in mind. This is absolutely what we should be doing.

However, that dark side or empathy comes up again and again. Our empathy for customers results in unnecessarily harsh judgements. We judge the people who did the work that preceded us, the people that run the companies we work for, the people that we work with on a day to day basis.

I was once speaking with a friend about a usability review of a website he’d worked on over a number of years. It was clear that he felt the whole thing was a waste of time. It turns out the problem was that the review contained comments along the lines of “Clearly, no consideration has been given to…”, “It appears that no one has thought about…”, “Not sure what the aim was here.” These comments were certainly coming from the right place: empathy for the customer, but the end result of these comments was that nothing in the usability was going to be acted on.

This friend had worked passionately over a number of years to make his company succeed and had been involved in most of the areas of the website which were being commented on. His response to the comments was something along the lines of “F*** them. They clearly don’t understand the challenges and thinking that went into those pages. They didn’t even ask about it. We’re not changing anything.”

I didn’t write that usability review, but I could have. There are several heuristic reviews I’ve written that may well have contained that kind of language. Now I find myself wondering whose work I was dismissing and if I managed to offend someone to the point that they simply ignored those recommendations. 

Empathy for people—for our customers—is a good thing. It can backfire on us, though. Our misplaced judgements can inadvertently make our jobs difficult if not impossible. If I had asked questions instead of coming out with a thoughtless “Really?”, I would have had a better starting point making improvements. If Greenpeace had managed to speak to the head of the company as a human being rather than a monster, perhaps some compromise could have been made. If the author of the usability review had been able to apply the Peel mantra and honor the work done by others, some of the opportunities for improvement would almost certainly have been acted on.

The more I do what I do, the more I feel that the hardest part of my job is taking the time to listen. I really like what John Maeda has said about storylistening. Each of the examples of harsh empathy I’ve given above involves someone “getting stuck in their own story.” That button copy is worse for our customers. Anyone who runs a company that pollutes is inherently evil. Whoever designed this website didn’t have their customers in mind at all. None of these things are true. And believing they’re true clouds our judgement and means that we’re quite simply misinformed. It takes time to listen past our judgements, but in the end doing our jobs well means doing the hard work of listening before we make a decision.

It’s complicated

I distinguish between complexity and complicated. I use the word “complexity” to describe a state of the world. The word “complicated” describes a state of mind. The dictionary definition for “complexity” suggests things with many intricate and interrelated parts, which is just how I use the term. The definition for “complicated” includes as a secondary meaning “confusing,” which is what I am concerned with in my definition of that word. I use the word “complex” to describe the state of the world, the tasks we do, and the tools we use to deal with them. I use the word “complicated” or “confused” to describe the psychological state of a person in attempting to understand, use, or interact with something in the world. Princeton University’s WordNet program makes this point by suggesting that “complicated” means “puzzling complexity.”

One of the things in the back of my mind when trying to make sense of the Buxton test was Don Norman’s distinction between complicated and complexity, which he laid out in the first chapter of Living with Complexity (PDF).

It’s a distinction I’ve found useful: complexity refers to the state of the world and complicated refers to a state of mind. On first viewing Bill Buxton’s presentation on Designing for Ubiquitous Computing, I thought that he might be confusing the two. I’m not so sure now. Thinking about his discussion of the “society of appliances” and its relationship to the society of people, I think he sees the two as inextricably linked. By considering the devices we use, the contexts we use them in and the transitions between them, I think Buxton’s intention is to reduce the complexity of the world, rather than just the psychological state of the people using those devices.

Related posts

On generalists

Are there going to be generalists? Sure. Many of them, working in small- or single-person teams. And perhaps since they will likely do the bulk of UX work in their organizations, “user experience designer” is a fine title and role for them. But my hunch is that, like general practitioners in the medical field, what generalists in the UX field will work on will be constrained to a set of limited problems. For anything really complex, specialists will deal with it. I’m pretty sure this is the situation we’re in right now, in fact.

I was reminded of this bit of wisdom from Dan Saffer while reading a recent over-hyped blog post.

If you choose not to decide

Note 21 August 2014: I found this in my Drafts. Usually the things I find among drafts are pretty fragmented. There’s some unfinished thoughts here, but it’s largely finished. It’s also the kind of thing I’ll likely want to come back to. So I’ve decided to publish it largely as I found it (under the date when it was written).

I’ve made a decision. It’s taken me a while: over two years, in fact.

In the short term, I’ll be focusing my career on front-end web development and accessibility. My longer term goal, however, is to shift my career slightly to become a user experience designer.

How I got here

I’ve been working on web sites for over ten years now. In that time, I’ve been a web designer (though I’m not a great graphic designer), a front-end developer, back-end developer, seo expert, sysadmin, database administrator, network administrator, information architect, and manager. I could probably think of more roles I’ve fulfilled.

For the past few years, I’ve been considering a career change. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, but I didn’t really know why. For a while, I was seriously considering a much more drastic career change: going back and finishing a biology degree I started over fifteen years ago.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that I enjoy working on websites. I came to the conclusion that what I was dissatisfied with wasn’t the industry I was working in, but the way I was working. I felt I had no real depth of knowledge. I knew a bit about a lot of things, but very there was no one topic that I knew well. In other words (and very cliched words at that), I was a jack of all trades. And master of none.

I’m tempted to say that I didn’t choose this, but in the immortal words of Neil Pert, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” I never made a choice. In fact, I refused to make a choice. I refused to focus on one thing.

I’m curious by nature. I took things apart as a kid — the phone system in our house, doorknobs, my Speak ‘n’ Spell. The web and the internet were the ideal playground for me. I wanted to understand how everything worked. It was exciting.

The small companies where I’ve typically worked have given me the opportunity to explore. If something needed to be done, I was happy to volunteer for it if it meant I’d learn something new.

And so I went on, never focusing on one thing. Learning a bit, and quickly moving on to the next thing that needed doing.

In the end, learning about everything wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be. In a strange way, it feels as if I’ve learned about nothing at all, though I know that’s not true. Nevertheless, the time has come to actively choose a path.

Why User Experience Design?

Once I decided that what I needed to was choose an area to focus on, it was immediately clear that the path I should pursue is user experience design. There are at least three reasons why this was so: my life before I became a web developer, my early influences as a web developer, and what excites me about the web now.

I started learning web development while I was studying cultural anthropology at the University of Texas. For much of the time, I loved cultural anthropology. Although my initial interest was in folklore, I became fascinated by how people communicate (or fail to communicate). I eventually dropped a biology double major in order to focus on cultural anthropology and linguistics.

Early in my career as a web developer, I read two books that had a lasting impact on how I think about the design and implementation of websites. They were Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience. Much of what I have tried to do as a web developer (front-end or back-end) has been based around what I learned in these two books. In short, make it as easy as possible for people to find what they are looking for.

My decision to pursue user experience design also stems from where I see the web going. Part my fascination with user experience derives from the idea of interface. A website is the place that a person interacts with a computer. That’s interesting. It raises all kinds of issues. How does the person get the computer to do what you want? How can that be facilitated? How can it be made intuitive? How can it be made more human, and less like you’re dealing with a machine.

Increasingly, though, a website (or web application) is a place that people interact with each other. This is even more fascinating. We’re not just dealing with information retrieval anymore. It’s not just about making it easy for people to find information. It’s about communication, interaction and conversations.

FIX THIS: All of this Web 2.0 stuff takes me right back to what I was learning when was studying cultural anthropology. User Experience Design gives me the chance to combine what I’ve learned over the last few years with what I learned in university.

MIGHT BE RELEVANT: This partly sums up what has been happening for the last 10 years. I tried to keep a widely varied skillset up to date while trying to aquire new skills.

What we need to do is to consciously start closing some of our doors….We ought to shut them because they draw energy and commitment from the doors that should be left open–and because they drive us crazy.

From http://bookoutlines.pbworks.com/Predictably-Irrational

Also, Nicole Sullivan’s baking bread comparison.

I get to think about how to make sites better?

London IA mini conference

  • Location: Guardian Offices, 90 York Way, London, W1W 6DS
  • Tag: #iamini

These were notes taken live, so they will contain errors, omissions and ridiculous typos.


  • Speaker: Ken Beatson


Take away one thing that you can change in your work

# 5 minutes of something from your every day work.


  • 5 talks
  • 1 workshop
  • More participation. Shorter, more interactive sessions.

Introducing Information Architecture at The Guardian

  • Speaker: Martin Belam (The Guardian)
  • Presentation: Introducing Information Architecture at The Guardian
  • Guardian just won Newspaper website of the year
  • Joined Feb this year
  • First IA @ the Guardian
  • Process (was): Product Manger -> Designer -> Software Engineers (Agile, 2 weekly sprints)
  • Product Managers: IA = wireframes
  • Designers: IA = Visual Hierarchy
  • Software Engineers: IA = Domain Driven Design (CMS)
  • Embed UCD in product development
  • “Ambush User Testing”. Take Silverback out and ask people how they get their news!

URLs should be: # Permanent # Addressable # Discoverable # Open

  • Using tags for content aggregation pages – who tags?
  • Keyword manager! – official job title ** Keywords added by jourrnalists, editors, etc. ** Manages items & keywords moving from one section to another
  • Open Platform – asking people to use their their content rather than erecting paywalls
  • Building – most environmentally friendly building in London (Kings Place)
  • “Producing a newspaper is an information service, and the Internet is an information platform.”
  • “Weave The Guardian into the internet.”

Ten minutes on Agile user experience

  • Speaker: Cennydd Bowles (Clearleft)
  • Most agile is bad – rushing headlong into coding w/o understanding the problem space.
  • Devs tend not to understand the big picture
  • “User scented design” – results of agile dev, related to genius design *agilemanifesto.org Agile Manifesto – set of values, no process mandated
  • Model Users in Iteration 0 ** Personas ** Concept maps ** Goals ** Use cases
  • prioritise user stories – designers must be involved ** find out about user stories ** flow from personals and scenarios
  • Jeff Patton – workahead – research ** Research n+2 ** Design n+1 ** support n ** Test n-1
  • Get the structure in place – let devs set up db, get data structure right
  • Design the obvious stuff first – profile / product pages
  • Involve the users in every iteration
  • Needs senior people
  • Good communication – designers can’t be separate from developers* Article: Getting Real About Agile Design


  • Horizon factor – push components into a subsequent iteration
  • Agile is light on documentation – gives time to think?
  • Buying time with the backend – how do you avoid backend constraints? ** Takes time to set up the environment? ** Talk to the devs, DBAs etc. Ask what they’re working on
  • Avoid problems by sitting with developers while they’re making it.

Why users don’t follow instructions

  • Speaker: Phillip Winwood (Usability Tester)
  • Psychology background

Scope of the talk

  • Get out of central London
  • Think in terms of people who don’t understand what is going on
  • Software in general (not just web)


  • People’s brains are pattern matching systems, works with tricks – apply known patterns to new things
  • What people know affects how they interact
  • William James: Infants perception involves a “buzzing, blooming confusion”
  • Don Norman & affordances – ‘pull me’ doors that need to be pushed
  • People have learned that you put the website address in Google b/c it works ** That’s the model they have in their head
  • users don’t like to read ** of the Active User] – academic paper (see area42.co.uk) ** in psychology ** production bias – people want to get things done, ignore dealt ** assimilation bias – use what you know to solve a problem
  • users aren’t a blank slate ** applying what you already know makes it worse ** see Don’t Make Me Think – people don’t want to think, want to apply what they’ve previously done to the current situation
  • learn until you can make it work, then you stop learning ** asymptote of mediocrity
  • Word Manual (Word 2 – 1991) – 800 pages! ** User’s don’t read manuals – never got used.
  • Recall vs Recognition ** Hearing your name at a party. Your brain changes focus ** More difficult to recall than recognize
  • Bottom Line: knowledge is always partial


  • Q: What happens when people don’t have preconceived notions about how a phone / camera will work? ** A: Pitch terminology at the right level. People don’t have enough time. Time is the killer.
  • Q: Is there anything you can do to encourage people to read some instructions? ** A: Open up the potential of the product: “READ ME FIRST” manuals – a piece of paper that floats out with vitally important information
  • Q: Quick guide is useful, but pitch it as benefits for the user. ** A:


Good talk, despite the technical difficulties.


  • users are busy, distracted
  • users are different, they all have different experiences
  • very few are or will ever become experts

Spec docs from Axure wires

  • Speaker: Ken Beatson
  • Slides and a software demo all in one. Exciting
  • myvillage.com
  • IA, Design in UK; devs in Belarus
  • requirements are important
  • wireframes are used, very few prototypes
  • muppets how dancing cheese sketch?
  • iterative deployment of modules

Axure demo

  • he uses two fields – display rules & what’s changed since last version
  • walk stakeholders through jpgs of wireframes
  • you can export a word document from Axure ** often good enough to send to devs ** sometimes he needs to generate prototypes


  • Q: In Axure, once you start to add other features, do the spec documents become less useful? ** A: Yes. If you generate a prototype, the spec docs is less useful.
  • Q: (followup) What are other people using for creating heavy documentation (Axure vs. OmniGraffle). ** A: Stop-motion animation output to vimeo. ** A: Mallof has some good blog post ** A: Getting more sketchy. Interactive Prototypes are the documentation.
  • Q: How to capture change. ** A: Capturing rationale is more important.
  • Q: What do you get your clients to sign off? ** A: Talk to your clients and pick reasonable clients.

Great discussion on “locking clients down” vs negotiation. No real resolution, though.

Design Consequences workshop

  • Speaker: Leisa Reichelt
  • Presentation: Design Consequences: A fun workshop technique for brainstorming & consensus building
  • Solution to the problems we were just talking about
  • Used to write beautiful documents w/ annotations ** people didn’t read them or didn’t have the skills ** we can’t ask people to be literate in wireframe reading
  • Get people around the table
  • “Pull problems to the front of the process.”
  • She uses this a lot during the project initiation phase

Design your own hat exercise (“Design Consequences”)

  • Sketching exercise stops preciousness surrounding design. Nice! I like it.
  • First person sketches a solution
  • Hand off to next person, who picks a part of the sketch and carries it on to the next level. What happens next?
  • Really useful and fun. Generated some useful ideas.

Leisa continues:

  • Two things that happen: *# People realize that they have a picture in their head, and that there are different solutions. *# Good to involved front-end developers who often have ingenious solutions.
  • including people early on improves communication with them
  • afterwards: *# Design one version together (cheap option) *# extract concepts onto sticky notes and affinity sort/rank (KJ Method)
  • recommendations ** do a pilot session ** make sure the design question is clear ** do a design warmup exercise (e.g. something to entertain a dog, irritate an enemy) – get people sketching ** invite a multidisciplinary team (including the people you most fear) ** be creative with materials / stimiulus ** always show example output (show that your sketches are sketchy! show your worst work!) ** bring energy (jelly beans! “spike their energy with sugar.”)


  • Q: Would you consider spending longer on wireframing. ** A: Different exercise. This is getting ideas out there. Getting it perfect would be a different project.
  • Q: Do you use this to teach people a lesson. ** A: Use it to show the work that designers do and take the mystery out of it.
  • Q: Do you have clients who think you’re getting them to do the work they are paying you to do? ** A: Even though I have designer in my title, I find myself facilitating design among my team.

Interacting with forms

  • Speaker: Matthew Solle
  • Big problems with forms.
  • 3 categories *# Non-critical: signing up for email *# Non-critical but critical to fill in: Online share dealing account *# Critical: Tax, passports, visa, etc.
  • non-critical forms that are excellent ** Huffduffer ** Google account (see if your account name is taken) ** Google search ** delicious – very clear ** radar – is that the electronic business card site? ** Audience comment: recall vs. recognition?
  • non-critical but problematic ** Amazon – log-in ** Google account vs. Gmail account – two different places, very confusing ** Halifax – application form
  • Passport / ID card is coming (critical) ** “Secure data” ** Do online forms communicate with this? ** Will this be done badly?

(More) Audience Feedback

  • Verified by Visa – critical, but crap?
  • horsesmouth.co.uk – you need to be approved and they text you. Jane Austin did the IA.
  • Jonas Löwgren – Ethical design
  • Interesting: TFL has poor wayfinding to prevent bottlenecks elsewhere in the station.

Interactivity – how IAs learned to stop worrying and love designers

  • Speaker: Tom Coombs (www.manwomanandchild.comlink)
  • Flash –
  • dull wireframes result in dull websites?
  • Silverlight demo – “Contoso Fixter” – Silverlight deep zoom – you can zoom in forever and just download what you need
  • Flash demo – timeline & tweens – (me: it’s been a long time since I’ve seen flash. brings back memories.)
  • “Dynamic specification” ** Really easy to design for interaction ** Demonstrate interactions ** Easy to build interactive prototypes
  • Really cool – webcam hacked to see infrared light to create a multi-touch interface.
  • Video: vimeo “Playing with Multi-touch” by IDEO labs link?
  • A new kind of interaction. Not actually happening on the web. Exciting to play with that stuff.
  • 3D – Flash demo of 3d-like behavior.

Audience Questions

  • Q/A: Flex for prototyping? A lot of the interactivity is build in?
  • Q: Where are you going with the touch table thing? ** A: Thinking about it at my desk. NOt sure where it will end up.
  • Q: Tutorial for infrared stuff? ** A: A lot of people working on it. LIbraries, code bases, etc. link?
  • Q: Resolution of Prototypes? What are user testing responses like? ** A: The Flash mockups are conceptual, but can be too high resolution for some situations.