Empathy and Accessible UX for Tourists

The definition of empathy from Merriam-Webster: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.

The two tenets of user-centered design are 1. Know thy user, and, 2. You are not thy user. To that end, empathy in user-centered design is important. “Empathic thinking” is a term that as become more common lately to describe including empathy into design. Although, this notion isn’t anything particularly new; this is just another way to describe an approach to understanding your user’s needs, or, just “knowing your audience.”

Recently I had an experience that made me reflect on the value of empathy. Last weekend my wife and I decided to be tourists in our own town, which we hadn’t done in years. We took the kids downtown, stayed in a hotel, and did all sorts of touristy things: we rode the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, we went out to eat a lot, we went to Millennium Park, we rode on a trolley, and we walked too slowly on Michigan Avenue with complete disregard for other pedestrians around us while we tried to control unruly children and make a decision about where to go next. We had a blast.

Photo from our hotel looking north across the Chicago River towards the Hancock building; note construction of the new Apple Store at lower left.

Within the context of this setting, here is the first usability challenge for you: pull our your mobile phone and search for the hours of the Navy Pier Ferris wheel. But, to really set the tone, make sure you have this sound effect of children screaming blaring in the background while you search for the hours.

The complexity here involves the fact that Navy Pier generally has no “hours” per se, although the Ferris wheel only runs at certain times. I won’t get too much into the usability of the Navy Pier site (i.e., the visibility of information in drop down menus), but suffice it to say that as we were about to leave to restaurant to walk to Navy Pier I had trouble finding the hours of the Ferris wheel, especially with my 4-year-old asking me repeatedly “Dad, are we going on the Ferris wheel now??”


The second usability challenge involves the wayfinding signage at the Millennium Park parking garage. Assuming you haven’t paid your parking ticket yet, which lane would you choose to exit the garage?

Drawing of parking garage exit with signage.

At a glance, we thought we needed to get into the left lane. While either lane would have worked, the mapping of the left and right arrows towards either lane paired with the sign labeling created confusion.

While these examples aren’t egregious design flaws, they demonstrate the importance of simplicity when empathizing with tourists. Tourists are trying to navigate an unfamiliar world, typically under distracted and perhaps stressful circumstances. Having an understanding of these circumstances can create a better experience for our out-of-town friends. But ultimately such considerations will have a broader reach, because, really, we all can be tourists in our own town from time to time.


IXDA Chicago Event

Last night I attended an @ixdachicago event, “The Writer’s Role in UX.” Each of the six panelists had varied and vast experiences that circuitously brought them to where they are now. I was generally impressed by how they described their roles which, while perhaps have the label “copywriter” or “content author” attached to them, really landed very close to what I would describe as a UX designer.

I’ve played drums for many years. People talk about how the drummer is responsible for the tempo that holds the band together. I think the bass player is really the individual who keeps the tempo (follow your bass player, drummers!), and in a lot of ways sets the tone for the band. I’ve found that the most talented bass players also tend to be fairly quirky, yet passionate, individuals (I mean this in the best possible way). I think that accomplished content professionals are the same way: unique and inspired, and very much at the heart of the design process.

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