I am now in my second semester of grad school at SVA’s Interaction Design MFA program and I already feel that my life has changed. It has been a year since I decided to apply to this program, and I think it is important to take the time to reflect on my intentions and share my story.
The Role of Empathy in Design
When I was 10 years old, my younger brother, Paul, who was 6 at the time, picked up my Nintendo controller and zipped through the first several levels of Super Mario Brothers with perfection. Though this may have been normal for a child who’d watched his older brother play for hours on end, for Paul, and even more so for me, it was groundbreaking. Paul had been diagnosed with autism at age 2 and had not, before that moment, been able to actively participate in any of the activities I enjoyed as a child. I had always felt deeply connected to Paul, and tried hard to overcome his inability to speak by continually trying to find innovative ways to communicate with him. It was in that moment, when the realization that Paul understood his surroundings more than I had imagined, that I put my finger on the pulse of empathy for the first time.
The ability to experience what another person is feeling has been a critical part of my journey into design. When Paul was diagnosed with autism, my parents explained that this meant he would not be able to play and talk like other children and that we would have to try and be more understanding towards him. I believe growing up with Paul enabled me to develop a more heightened degree of empathy than I otherwise would have.
My parents invested a lot of time and money trying to help Paul communicate. We knew that he understood much more than he was able to express and it was often frustrating for everyone in the family; most especially for Paul. I would often imagine myself as my brother and what it must be like to see the world through his eyes. I have had many dreams through the years where my brother would speak to me and tell me about his life.
During my senior year of college something changed for Paul when he began to use an iPad for the first time. There were a limited number of applications available for nonverbal people to help them communicate. Paul learned to navigate the TouchChat app fairly easily, and it quickly became part of his daily routine. He would use it to make requests and answer questions, and enjoyed many other entertainment applications on his iPad. It was inspiring to see his personality and sense of humor begin to surface through some of the ways he used the app.
The transformative effect of technology on my brother’s life opened my eyes to the possibilities of creating experiences for people with autism and other communication difficulties. I had been studying visual design but I shifted my focus to user experience and interned at a digital agency in Minneapolis with a strong UX department. I became more interested in usability and the way people feel when they interact with digital products. I began experimenting with prototyping techniques to bring my designs to life. It was so gratifying to be able to validate the interactions with actual users through a working prototype. My experimental curiosity quickly turned into a passion that has only increased with each year that I work in the field.
After five years of employment as a UX professional, I have enjoyed working with some of the leading agencies in the industry. Although I value the comfort and financial security of what I have been able to achieve there is still so much more that I want to accomplish and I know that pursuing a master’s degree is an important step in that direction. I plan to spend the next two years studying the relationship between autism and Interaction Design and to develop a product to help people with autism communicate; with the possibility of turning that into my own company someday.
I see this program as an opportunity to spend time researching and experimenting through prototyping to explore how technology can help enable communication. The MFA Interaction Design program at SVA has such an amazing reputation along with some of the best faculty in the industry and I cannot think of a more conducive environment for innovation. Since I was a child I have been trying to find ways to communicate with my brother, and the idea of us having conversation someday is what has motivated me to move past my fears and take a step towards that.