The dilemma of empathy in design — an interview with Chelsea Hostetter

Chelsea presenting at Strelka design conference in Moscow.

As designers, we are aware of the importance of infusing empathy into the design process, but we rarely stop to reflect on the emotional reverberations and obstacles that empathy infuses into the design process. In our interview, Chelsea (AC4D 2014) speaks specifically about those challenges in designing for and with the queer community in Austin — a group that she is a part of and strongly supports. Chelsea is well known in the AC4D community for her abilities as an illustrator, designer, and patient teacher, purposefully conveying emotion and meaning through sketching.

How did you find out about AC4D?

In 2008, I was working as a graphic design intern at a financial company called MPower Labs. My boss was Suzi Sosa, who is Jon Kolko’s friend and one of the investors in AC4D; she mentioned it offhand. Right after I had gotten out of undergraduate I looked at it again and I felt like I wasn’t 100% ready for graduate school. Around the same time, I applied to the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), an exclusive graduate school for professional cartoonists, and they accepted me. I remember thinking, well, I could avoid this shitty economy and go to graduate school in Vermont for cartooning, but there was something in me that said, “no, you should stay in Austin and see what happens.” So I declined to go to CCS, and ended up staying here in Austin and working on my professional career.

Fast forward to 2012, four years later. Alex Wykoff was my coworker at a tech company I was working at and he wanted to be a designer. He told me about this school called the Austin Center for Design, said we should apply together. I felt like the first time was just a coincidence. The second time was a sign. When the universe knocks at your door twice, you go with it. So I decided to apply with Alex. I was excited that we both got in, and we were both nervous about it, but I was very happy to be able to work with him throughout the AC4D experience.

What got you to say definitively you were attending?

I went to the Austin Center for Design bootcamp and realized that there was so much more utility and purpose to design than I previously thought (shameless plug, one’s coming up!). I had been looking at other schools like RISD and SCAD, and the work that I saw people producing was a bunch of really pretty — technically very impressive — but a lot of the work that I saw didn’t have a lot of feeling or emotion behind it. Or even purpose, really. I would see student projects where people would design these beautiful 3D printed bikes, but they weren’t meant for people to ride. They weren’t meant for consumption, they were meant to be art pieces. While I think that’s nice, I’m very utilitarian in professional design. If it doesn’t function as it should but looks nice, it’s useful for beauty but not much else. When I spoke with Jon, and then saw the types of people that Austin Center for Design attracted, I realized that this was the right decision for me to go there instead of any of the other schools. I knew that A, the coursework was going to be difficult and I like to seek out challenges; and B, the social entrepreneurship piece was a piece I really cared about. It wasn’t about making art pieces that go into the world and are forgotten. It was about making an impact and making a difference.

Tell me about your year at AC4D.

It was hard! (laughs) I think one of the things that struck me about AC4D that the curriculum is really at the same pacing and difficulty level as at Carnegie Mellon University (where I did my undergraduate degree). This meant that there were high expectations set for us that I really genuinely wanted to meet. Q1 was okay, Q2 was very difficult. Alex and I were embedded into the trans and queer community of Austin, and it’s really hard when you’re part of the LGBTQ community and also talking with members of that community about their needs to not feel like you want to take action right then and there. There were a lot of emotions I felt around the research that was just difficult to process as a queer person myself.

In Q2, I went to the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20th). The Transgender Day of Remembrance is an event held for the community to remember the lives of the transgender victims of homicide within that year and to communally grieve. So throughout all of our interaction with the trans and queer community, the underlying ribbon we found is that somebody usually knows someone who has died whether through murder or through suicide. It’s tragic, and it’s awful, but that is the day to day of our community. As I was listening to the many names called out of lives lost that year, I started sobbing. Watching one person grieve is harrowing, but watching an entire community grieve, and feel connected to people you haven’t even met, is something that is completely, deeply, and soulfully impactful. At the time we dove really deep into the research but it struck a very deep, dear, personal chord with me. I previously considered myself a member of the queer community but through that research, I realized that I hadn’t been a good ally of the trans community like I previously thought. I didn’t have enough information or empathy to properly support our trans community then. Now, I feel much more confident in being an ally, but I’m learning new things every day. It changed my worldview and allowed me to become a more supportive person. That’s how much the research can change you.

Q3 was really difficult, and Q4 was the most difficult. It’s challenging to take your insights from research and turn them into something with which people can empathize, but it is often extremely challenging when you’re doing something socially impactful to take that and put it into an idea that’s going to make money. Because sometimes you wonder if you’re doing the right thing for the community — there’s a societal rule that I believe if you’re making money and benefitting off a community, that that makes you a bad person. So I had a lot of conflicting feelings throughout that entire time. I still believe in social entrepreneurship, but especially with the income disparity of the queer community, I don’t know how that would work. I wouldn’t want to charge an already financially burdened community to use something that might help them find friends. So in hindsight, I had expected the rigor of the classwork, but I did not expect the emotional rigor that I would be going through with my work at AC4D.

How did this empathetic research end up inspiring your ultimate project idea?

We started with our focus being simply the trans and variant community of Austin. We broadened it slightly to the queer community of Austin, which is slightly different than the lesbian and gay community of Austin. The queer community tends to include bisexuals, folks who are trans, gender queer, gender variant, asexuals, anyone who doesn’t exactly fit the norm of heterosexual or homosexual.

We recognized that there were a lot of resources online for people to talk together in the queer community, but ultimately, a lot of the people in the queer community couldn’t find other people in the community even in Austin. There were some pockets here and there, but it was rare to see people who had formed a pocket of community around themselves. A fair amount of people we had talked to felt isolated from the community, often through a series of events, or the way that they had chosen to live their life. There are folks out there that identify as transgender but at some point, they pass as another gender, and at that point, there are some folks who feel like they would rather pass as a binary gender (male or female). While that’s a choice they make for themselves, I also don’t think the community should be isolating or vilifying them for making that choice or vice versa, where “passing” for a binary gender is idolized or looked up to in a hurtful way.

So, this opportunity manifested itself somehow into a mobile application? How did your initial research translate into content or feature requirements for the interface to make it approachable and build community in a way that might be distinct from, for example, joining a Facebook group?

Queery is the name of the application. We devised it specifically for the queer community to talk about targeted subjects that were very relevant to them. These targeted subjects would include coming out and other queer related issues; if people wanted to know, for example, what shops were trans and queer-friendly. Those discussions were already happening online, but more often than not, we saw that people — the people who felt most positively in the community — were the ones who had a physical mentor there with them, saying, “Hey! Here are the shops you go to,” or “I have this doctor, or therapist, they’re very trans and queer-friendly, here let me show you to them.” Someone to sort of walk them through the steps. So, we devised Queery as a way for people to become mentors within the queer community who could be physically there for their mentees as well as a way for people to receive mentorship within the queer community.

It works like this: You are invited to queery by a friend. You create a profile and select a topic that you want to talk about and then it will select for you someone who is nearby who also wants to talk about that topic. The application will pick a coffee shop that is located between the two of you (without showing you the location of the other person) and then the two of you meet at that coffee shop. This serves as a neutral location to talk about whatever you want to talk about — that conversation topic is just a starter — but the intent is for people who have not met each other before to meet in-person in a coffee shop and get to know each other. It helps people on the outskirts of the community feel more connected to people within the community and helps us meet one another in person when we might have only met someone online. It’s a safe, secure way to meet people within the queer community that you might not have otherwise known about.

queery wireframes.

After the coffee shop meeting, the system allows people to rate each other and designate whether it was a helpful session for them, if the person was nice, etc. The ratings were helpful to assist in moderating the online community; if, for instance, someone who was rude or trolling entered the community, the system would remove them from the community. The only way to get into the queery system is similar to Gmail’s beta launch, which is to give an invite to another person. People who are already part of a community will start inviting their friends and then their friends will start inviting their friends and at least one person might vaguely know another person, but it allows those large pockets of communities to be able to be connected together through a friend of a friend of a friend. If you have someone who is at the epicenter of a community they might be connected with someone who is sort of at the farther branches of the community and it allows them to pull that person at the edge back into the community. That to us was the biggest thing — and the biggest thing we found in the research — is that if you have a strong community and you have a group of people in-person who are supporting you, then you feel like you have a good place in the world. If you struggle with depression or gender dysphoria you are less likely to act on impulses when you have a physical presence of a community because you are thinking about your own impact. The biggest risk to someone who is struggling or marginalized is being isolated from their community.

How did prototyping this system change the system or your understanding of the community?

One of the things that I realized through prototyping is that when you present people with a binary electronic system for community, people react to this in unusual ways. For instance, in the pilots that we did, we were able to match people up with one another for conversations but we found out later that it was actually better if a third person introduced them. It mattered was that there was a third person there to moderate if things went sour. Because this is a high-risk community, the risk of “going sour” isn’t as mundane as having a disagreement. Sometimes fights like these end in a deadly way. Prototyping surfaced even more challenges we needed to meet so that participants felt safe and comfortable.

Prototyping queery.

Through prototyping, we also realized that there is a discrepancy between people giving information to the system and the desire to get information from the system. When we talked to people about their profile questions vs. the questions they’d want to ask the other people, the questions they wanted to ask other people were questions that they themselves did not feel comfortable answering. Questions like, what their transitioning status is, if they have a partner, what their sexual orientation is, etc. This isn’t information that someone would be comfortable giving out to a stranger, and yet, they reported that they would feel more comfortable if a stranger offered this information to them.

Prototyping also validated the benefit of queery which was when people walked away from the conversations, they felt better, felt like there were more people in the community who understood them and felt connected to the Austin community. In one of our pilots, there was someone from the trans community and someone from the asexual community who met together and the person from the trans community realized that they genuinely did not understand what asexuality was and how it functioned because they themselves were not asexual. The person from the asexual community realized that although they considered themselves part of the queer community, they had only ever hung around people who were heterosexual-leaning or otherwise part of the majority and they understood what it felt to be in the queer community.

The last thing we learned from piloting was that we shouldn’t just pair like with like but also make unexpected pairings because it’s beneficial for people to get to understand the breadth and depth of the queer community and understand someone who they haven’t talked to before. It helps people understand their differences while rallying around the fact that the queer community is just as diverse as its many, many members.

Let’s talk a little about Post-AC4D. Tell us about your experience at Frog Design and your insight after reflecting back on your time at AC4D.

I currently work as an Interaction Designer at frog design. I began by contracting with them. They liked me and I liked them and we decided to stick with one another, which has been a wonderful partnership. The reason I decided to pursue becoming a better designer in lieu of pursuing doing social entrepreneurship is that when I left AC4D I genuinely felt like I had to be a better designer in order to serve the queer community better. So my focus at the time — and I think my focus even now — is to hone my skills so that I become more useful to others.

I don’t think that queery would have worked in the state it was in after AC4D because I wasn’t as embedded in the queer community as I am today. I am now a regular member of several queer community meet-ups and work with an internal group at frog that promotes diversity and inclusion. I realize in my specific case, in order be helpful and beneficial and really design for that community, you have to be embedded in it. In my current position within the community, I feel far more able to help people. It has also allowed me to pursue other things that I thought I would not be able to pursue. Some of the work that I am doing is designing physical spaces, and it’s very exciting to be part of the wide breadth of work we’re doing here at frog.

Chelsea leading a design workshop.

The other thing here is the people. At the very end of the day, I got into Austin Center for Design because of the people and the reason I’m at frog is because of the people, because there are a ton of incredibly talented and wonderful individuals with whom I have been able to share programs with, I have been able to share the stage with at interaction16, and that I’ve been able to share my work with and become better. I feel like the work that we’re doing at frog is definitely targeted towards a different audience — but all of this work that I’ve been doing, I feel has the end goal in mind of helping the queer community. Even if it’s one small thing at a time. I just had a really great conversation with a good friend of mine who knows someone who is coming out and I was so happy to provide them with advice and information to be supportive during that time. I’m honored that they think of me that way. I didn’t have that kind of support and a lot of the people in the community that we’ve talked to in Austin, don’t have that support. The more I’m involved in the community, the more that people know that I am involved in the community, the more questions that get asked, the more potential link ups that can happen and the more people can become connected.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yeah! One of the things that AC4D taught me is that in the world of technology — and in the world of design affected by technology — things tend to be in absolutes. For instance, Snapchat uses shareable design and all of a sudden everyone wants to know how to integrate shareable design into their application, or Facebook excels at being a viral social platform and now everyone wants to bring social into their applications. All designers and researchers at some point in their career get to the point where they say, “I thought this was totally a certain thing, I thought this was black and white but maybe I was wrong.” So my philosophy as a designer is to force yourself to look at everything in shades of gray rather than black and white because black and white is sexy and it’s something people are naturally drawn to, but people have a hard time finding the balance.

I think some of the greatest designers were the ones who achieved balance in their work and who have achieved balance of form and function. I get tired of hearing people say that one buzz word is going to be the magic bullet, because life isn’t that simple, it’s really complex. Just like the queer community, you can’t put someone in a box and expect them to conform to everything in that box. It’s not possible. Everything will bleed out of the box. We should stop putting people in boxes and allow people to be the weird, wonderful amoebas that they are.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.