Empathy has been the word on my mind for the past two weeks. I’m exploring the process of design and empathy is the first step. I was surprised at first to find that empathy was stressed in the design process however as I have focused on the topic I have developed respect for its inclusion. “Empathic understanding goes beyond knowledge: when empathizing you do not judge, you ‘relate to [the user] and understand the situations and why certain experiences are meaningful to these people’, a relation that involves an emotional connection” (Kouprie & Visser, 2009). If we don’t begin the process of design by developing an empathic understanding of the people who will be impacted then our final product is unlikely to fulfill it’s intended purpose. We have to understand the WHO of the problem before we can develop a solution.
While I’ve been focused on empathy I’ve looked at situations in a different light. I’ve tried to approach life from the perspective of others and it has been eye-opening. One specific instance was homework time on a typical weeknight. My children are 6 & 8 years old and while the 6-year-old has very little homework the 8-year-old always has a significant amount. Every evening I struggle to get her to sit still and complete the assignments. There are constant reminders and frustration builds until we are both angry. I decided to try to experience the activity from her perspective and see if I could empathize with her side of the story. You can find a short video of the perspective-taking experiment here.
I learned a lot from experiencing homework time from the perspective of my 8-year-old daughter. First of all, there is way too much happening around her for her to even consider concentrating. There are puppies (Wilbert & Kitkat) begging for attention and needing to go outside. There is a brother sitting close who is doing colorful fun things and he wants to have conversation. There is a mommy in the room who is moving around and typically cooking dinner which has its own sounds and scents designed to distract. How could I possibly expect her to concentrate in the middle of this circus?
While I was recording I had a “homework” assignment in front of me but even though I was looking at it I wasn’t able to concentrate at all and that is where I started to feel empathy. To be honest, I feel terrible for all of the frustration I have unleashed on this poor child on a daily basis. If I had taken the time to look at it from her perspective I would have saved us both a lot of grief. Homework time has been redesigned as a result of this experience.
My daughter sits in the dining room to do her homework now where it is quieter but close enough for me to answer questions if she has them. The puppies are sent outside to play in our fenced yard while she works and her brother sits in the kitchen to do his work. So far homework time is going a little smoother than in the past. It’s amazing what can happen when you look at things through the eyes of another.
(2009). A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user’s life. Journal of Engineering Design, 20:5, 437-448.