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What Having a Spaceship in Your Closet Has to Do With User Experience

On Imagination and Pretend Empathy

When I was a kid, I used to play a lot of pretend.

I had a detective’s office, a spaceship, a courtroom, a school, a halfway house for distressed teens, a tax office, a secretly-trained assassins’ bureau, a chemistry lab, a movie production studio, a radio station, and a doctor’s office.

Adults told me I had a great imagination, and my friends enjoyed playing with me. We left our 8-year-old bodies and became nurses, judges, detectives, and talk show hosts. In our play, we were made to feel, act, and speak differently from the way we would in our real lives.

We went through great lengths to make everything as realistic as possible. The spaceship was perhaps our most distinguished effort. My friend, Hadas, and I worked tirelessly on it while my mother was at work. We used a roll of aluminium foil we had purchased with our pocket money and taped it to the inside walls of a closet which was used to store winter clothes.

We printed the astronomy section of a CD-ROM encyclopedia and stored the pages inside a foil “computer” that spat out useful information about the planets on which we landed. Irresponsibly, we attached a desk lamp to the ceiling of my closet and sat in the terrible heat as we escaped into space and into our missions.

Naively, we thought these objects and environments made our games real. We worked hard to collect all the necessary props: stamps, forms, hacked school boards, stationery, fax machines, and tape recorders. When we grew up and started using all these objects at our real, grown-up jobs, we realized it was nothing like we’d imagined it to be.

This is because, during play, we set our own constraints and decided our own rules. In the “real world,” we had to do things that were useful for the job, not just the things that were interesting or enjoyable. Working in an office was nothing like playing, neither was being a teacher, and especially not doing taxes.

So what does this have to do with user experience?

Guessing how to design or build something for someone else is like pretending to be a nurse or a detective. When we mentally try to put ourselves in the shoes of our users, we are still us. We can try our best to imagine their experiences and needs, but we will always be free to choose the parameters we think apply to those experiences.

During a recent research project, I was interviewing people about the process of deciding where to go out on weekends. We thought this would be really simple. After all, how much complexity can be involved in rounding up some friends to share a cocktail or a game of bowling?

I was entirely unprepared for what I was going to hear. When I asked one woman how she plans get-togethers with family, she told me a story I could never have imagined myself. She lives in a community of a dozen, non-English-speaking family members, who rely on her to arrange how they spend their free time together. Planning family activities is one of her core roles in her family, she told me.

Each outing is a project she proudly orchestrates: she finds a place that would be interesting to the children who are coming (depending on their age), she takes into account the financial situation of everyone attending, she phones in advance if the group is getting larger. She also keeps a vast mental and physical collection of future outing ideas. “I take great pride in knowing I’ve set up an enjoyable time for everyone who came,” she told me, “everyone in my family relies on me to organize our time together.”

Her role in her family and community was tied to what I could only imagine as a frivolous activity, or an afterthought. Without speaking with her, I would continue to make product decisions based on that universe of assumptions. And I would be wrong.

Our imagination is grounded in who we are. Sure, child play and business assumptions share only a thin thread of similarity. But imagination works all the same: it transports us from one corner of our mind to another. It cannot transport us into the minds of others with any accuracy we can rely on.

The only way to truly understand the constraints, emotions, philosophies, and behaviors that guide our users is to get in touch with them: speak with them, observe them at work or play, and seek to find out how they’re different from us.

Otherwise, with the best of intentions, we’re only pretending to design for others.