Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Great Design Requires Good Listening: Six Keys To Become An Empathic Designer

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You can tell a great designer from her ability to tune in, identify and deeply understand the needs and expectations of her design client. The greater this ability, the greater, in my experience, the likelihood of design success.

Photo credit: Yuri Arcours

Great designers, whether famous or not, are great listeners and fantastic idea partners. They come with no pre-set agenda or rigid assumptions. They are open, excited to listen and understand what you have in mind to realize, and ask all the right questions in the world to make sure they are seeing in their minds the same things you do.

Yes, great design requires good listening. Although apparently an easy skill to add to your work toolbox, in reality good listening is one of the hardest tasks to learn for someone who has not actively trained itself at it.

Good listening requires true interest and a genuine desire to serve your customer needs. Although obvious, this is often lost in the race to acquire a contract, to present a draft before others, to impress the client with your talent, and more often than not to get money coming in the quickest way possible.

Passion can't be faked and the lack of true love for what one is practicing may be one of the reasons for so much mediocre design. This is why, those few who "feel", ask, look inside and "dress" with their own customers dreams and desires by empathically diving into their realities, are the only designers posed to make their clients happy and successful.

Design and usability expert Joshua Porter, looks at this very issue and at the traits required to become what one would call "an empathic designer".

Here his six recommendations:

Intro by Robin Good

Photo credit: Yuri Arcours

How To Be an Empathic Designer

by Joshua Porter

"A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." - Douglas Adams

Part of being a web designer is trying to understand and make sense of how people are using your design. Therefore, being empathic, or having the ability to share and understand the feelings of another, is a valuable trait to have.

The more empathic you are, the more you can understand how people are using your design, how they think and feel about it, and what you need to do to make it great.

But How Do You Become Empathic?


What if you're not naturally an empathic person? Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I feel like I'm getting too far away from the people I design for.

1) Keep an Open Mind


It is a great irony that the people who claim to have open minds probably have closed ones, and the people who fear most a closed mind probably have the most open ones. But fear in this case is an enabler, as it allows the designer to keep up their energy and watchfulness for something new, something they didn't understand before, something that is key to the success of their design. Once you have everything figured out, it's time to stop designing.

2) Realize that People Make Sense to Themselves


No matter what people do, however irrational it may appear, they probably make sense to themselves. So even if they do something that seems completely off the wall, try to understand it, at least from their perspective and in their context. Often this has the effect of changing the way you see what you're working on, not temporarily but permanently.

3) Take a Partnership Role


Too often we take an expert or specialist role in what we're doing. This is normal, as it reinforces our need to be there. But if we can take a partnership role, especially with the people who we design for, then we open ourselves up to many more opportunities to learn. This is partly because we are more ready for it, and partly because most people like being in a partnership more than other types of relationships. One of the tricks of usability testing facilitation is to always talk in terms of in "we need your help and together we can make this product better".

4) Keep Truth as a Mistress


President James Garfield said "truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable." I think he was referring to the difficulty that Truth sometimes has in getting into our head. We first observe to fit what we see into what we know, and if it doesn't fit then we have a choice. We either accept something new or we dismiss it. The more we accept truth, the easier it is to accept the idiosyncrasies of others, and therefore become more empathic toward them.

5) Everybody has a Story to Tell


I've got a friend who is as quiet as a mouse. In public situations he rarely says a word. He would probably be horrible to try to design for because he doesn't say much at all. Getting feedback or insight from him would be like pulling teeth. But once you accept that and let him unfold as he wants to, he becomes an entirely different person. He's got a story, and an interesting one, and I think most people do, too. Life is interesting! Even if it doesn't look like it at first.

6) Record Things you Don't Understand


One of our unfortunate tendencies in life is to dismiss things we don't understand. We ignore them because we can't figure them out at the moment. This, however, is the wrong move. Instead, we should take note of them, write them down and perhaps come back to them later.

If we accept that there are things outside of our understanding, then we become more empathic to those who have a different view of the world.

Additional Sources

If you want to learn more about empathic design and usability:

Photo credits:
How woman - Photo credit: Yuri Arcours
Be a partner - Photo credit: Bellestock
Truth - Photo credit: Stephen Coburn
Story - Photo credit:Stephen Coburn
Thinking with your own head - Photo credit: Andres Rodriguez
Recording - Taking notes - Photo credit: Goh Siok Hian
Open mind - Photo credit: Feng Yu

Originally written by Joshua Porter and first published as "How to be an emphatic designer" on September 12th 2007.

About the author


Joshua Porter is the editor of Bokardo, a site about social web design. He is currently the Director of Web Development at User Interface Engineering, a behavioral research company based in North Andover, Massachusetts. There he conducts world-class research on how people actually use web sites and products. He also holds the annual User Interface Conference, one of the most successful design conferences in the industry.

Joshua Porter -
Reference: Bokardo - social web design [ Read more ]
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posted by Robin Good on Saturday, November 10 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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