Emphatic technologies

Technology is ultimately built for people. We need to make sure we extend our empathy to those people that use it or it impacts through the way we develop and deliver our technology.

Can we extend our empathy in the technologies we build?

My professional career in software technology goes back 20 years. I started in the era when PCs already ruled the business world. Software running on PCs was used by many organizations to run important parts of their business or deliver a service to customers. PCs were entering everyday life for many at home too. The Internet was at the beginning of its wide adoption journey.

My first professional application was a PC software for a physiology lab that was ran by a Professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Skopje, Macedonia along with her three research assistants. I was responsible to connect my software to their equipment for collecting electric pulse measurements from patients with electrodes attached on parts of their body. I wrote code that used medical research and theories the lab was testing to analyse the collected data and identify anomalies that would help them better understand different health risks. As part of this work I have met patients suffering from epilepsy, mental illnesses and even women with high-risk pregnancy. As a fairly impressionable young adult, the experience had a strong impact on me and left me with a desire to use technology to help people.

I didn’t recognize it at the time, but when I look back I feel that my empathy to those patients that were the first recipients of whatever value my technology was providing to them got somehow translated to the technology itself. I saw the technology as an opportunity to extend of my humanity and I wanted to write more software that helps people. Software was a way to replicate one’s effort and impact the lives of many people and my goal was to make sure it had a positive impact.

Sometimes, the people I have impacted with the software I was involved in writing were direct users of the technology itself. Couple years into my journey as a software developer I have been writing code for a banking software and got involved in the roll-out and training with the front office staff at a bank in Kumanovo, a small town in the north east of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia where I studied and worked at the same time. I saw a lot of pushback and reluctance from the bank employees. They had an old mainframe system with terminals in front of them that did a part of their job and a lot of manual paper based processes as well as a busy back office operation to tie everything together and run the bank. No one wanted to let go of the old way as they feared the new technology will replace them.

Surprisingly, I found an eager adopter in one of the oldest employees — an older lady only couple years away from retirement — who patiently listened to the advice me and my colleagues were giving to everyone and tried hard to learn how to use the new system. She even reported problems to us and carefully walked us through every step to help us reproduce the problems so we could fix them quickly — unlike her colleagues who threw their hands up and used some of the early roll-out problems as excuses not to bother with the new system.

We later found out that the older lady empathized with our youthful inexperience and wanted to help — she wanted to see us succeed! In turn, we wanted to help her learn and enjoy working with our technology to show that age is not a barrier for that. The mutual respect and empathy between us made her take on a champion role for us within her group and inspired us to respect all our users even when they were complaining.

I was learning that users are not stupid, just human, and as such they have emotional reaction to our technology. The old lady found a way to use her empathy for us — the creators of the technology everyone feared — to learn how to accept and respect our technology and ultimately help us make it better for everyone.

This is when I learned that people react to technology like they do with everything — humans tend to anthropomorphize everything — and when they do that they react emotionally to that technology. When the technology is making them do things that are not intuitive, forces them to remember too many commands and options for specific tasks or is unhelpful in describing what they did wrong or how can they correct themselves, they get upset and feel real hate for the technology itself. But if they can see and relate to the people building the technology, they can transfer their empathy for the people creating it into the technology itself and tamper their reaction or even offer to help the creators do a better job.

The complicated relationship between humans and technology I have been learning about in my early professional career has been one of the major factors for the emergence of disciplines like user experience design, which replaced the old user interface design approach where human factors like feelings, intuition, etc. were not always taken into consideration. Elements of that relationship have been recognized and impacted many other aspects of technology development — e.g. the concept of inviting the customer to join your development team is one of the principles of agile methodologies like Scrum and it reminds me of my experience with the old lady at the bank (I wish we had her join our team when we were developing the software, not only in the final, roll-out stage!)

Yet, there is a lot more left to be desired. 20 years after my career start, many organizations deliver software to millions of users globally using the cloud. The impact of our software is much broader and larger. The ability to empathize with our users is exponentially harder as they’re an unnamed mass we have no real relationship with. The understanding we have how our technology changes the lives of its users (or those it disrupts and unearths from their previous state into a new one that often looks scary and disparaging) comes to us in the form of faceless statistical analysis devoid of an humanity. Even when we attempt to bring those users into our development, we let our biases and siloed networks influence which users we pick — we tend to pick those that think like us, are likely to embrace new technologies in general and will confirm what we already believe is true.

Building software for massive amounts of users requires extending our empathy into the technology itself and using the technology to let our humanity create a face for ourselves in the way the technology presents itself. The AI researchers and companies know this well and therefore pursue technologies like human like voice to act as the interface their users meet when working with their technology. But we can do that with all sort of technology — asking questions, offering help, pointing into how to correct or improve some action or task, etc. are all way how our technology can show human traits and show we built it to be helpful. Providing helpful documentation, excellent video tutorials, and step by step guides goes a long way too. This is not easy but it is worth doing.

Being respectful of the user and helping them learn and effectively use our technology is one part of the equation. We need to get the users of our technology to relate to us as the people building that technology. We need to show them that it was humans who built that technology and that those humans are working hard to help — they care and want to make sure their technology adds value and enhances the lives of those users benefiting from it. What is probably most difficult but critical, we need to show respect to those our technology replaces or removes.

Organizations are making investments in supporting carbon neutral economies, investing in sustainability, supporting diversity, but little is invested in or even discussed what those same businesses do to help those their technology hurts — at least in the short term. We have our humanity within us to guide us in helping each other. And now more than ever, we have the ability to build technology and organizations that embeds our humanity in its DNA.

In my consulting career, I have a chance to touch and help many businesses. By helping them improve the invisible bottom line of the technology — the one no one cares about until it breaks or doesn’t perform, we let them focus on building better and hopefully more humane products. This is why cloud technologies are so important. They remove the heavy lifting and allow developers to focus on what is important — solving problems for your users and enhancing their professional or personal lives by letting them use your technology to do something they couldn’t do or was difficult otherwise.

20 years into my career, I feel blessed I am able to build an organization based on the core principles of being helpful and providing value. We invite our customers to work with us directly in virtual teams and build tools together that automates all of the repetitive difficult tasks and enables them to safely experiment with new technologies, innovative ideas and better ways to build and deliver their solutions to their customers.

We freely share our knowledge with anyone we work with and invest in their learning so they can feel empowered in using the cloud and the tools we build and not fear them. There is a widening gap between their old experience with old guard tools and technologies and outdated processes that prevented them from experimenting and innovating in the past.

It is hard to accept the new technologies like cloud or DevOps tools for automation as anything better than what came before when you’re in a state of fear or hate of most technologies based on past experiences. We need to be patient and guide our customers along the way to make them accept the opportunities that the new technologies open up for them.

We also need to help their organizations in transitioning the way they run their IT and product operations so they don’t use technology as an excuse to remove people but rather help their people learn more, tackle new challenges and ultimately build more humane and valuable technology for their customers.

We need more humane technology in our world