B Calm and B Corp
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B Calm and B Corp

Heartbreaking design: can technology be empathic?

Creating from the heart

Written with love by Irene Brambilla with the support of Francesco Mondora, Marco Bertoni, Elisabetta Olgiati and Francesca Fedeli. English adaptation by Alison Ruffoni.

From processing to feeling

The Modular Theory of Mind compares the human brain to the computer, representing it as an information processor.
The mind/computer analogy, which sees the brain as hardware and the mind as software, is the emblem of the functional approach, that describes psychic phenomena as functions used by the organism in order to adapt to the environment.

These theories were formulated in the 1970s when artificial intelligence was in its full development.

Kraftwerk, Pocket Calculator, 1981

During the following years, however, several theories and discoveries challenged the idea that the mind could be considered a mere computer, highlighting the fundamental role that emotions and relationships play in the way we relate to the external environment.

In the 90s the psychologist Gardner revisited the concept of intelligence, previously associated with the IQ, with his theory of multiple intelligences, including interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Then scientist Goleman then defined the concept of Emotional Intelligence, considered today by many people to be more important than intellectual intelligence in determining academic and professional success.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is defined as the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups — Daniel Goleman

Moreover, the discovery of mirror neurons revolutionized the way we consider the human brain, showing that empathy is biologically implemented in our neural system.

Wall-e, 2008

Designing with love

Now that we see the mind as an emotional and empathetic organism, there are many questions for those who design software to improve people’s lives.

In this article, I would like to describe how I participated in a User Experience Design Research driven by emotions.

It led us to the creation of an Affinity Diagram, the representation of a visual concept, and how we decided to include emotions in this project.

Finally, I would like to express some thoughts on the role of empathy in technology.

The context

Life is made of empathy. While we were studying empathy in software, we met Fight The Stroke. We discovered that an ictus can happen in the womb too. In fact, Fight the Stroke Foundation has been working for years supporting parents of children affected by cerebral stroke.
We had already interviewed the founder, Roberto D’Angelo when we talked about Technologies for Inclusion.

So together with other partners, including Tim Foundation, the Gaslini Hospital and more, the foundation decided to work with mondora to extend technology services to their users.

Data Collection

As often happens, our customers had many ideas about the value to be given to users through the software service. There were many thoughts and proposals to be refined with preliminary research work.
Although this journey had as destination the children’s hearts, it also had — like all our travels — the departure from our heart. We think we should always start from there.
So we co-created at a FightCamp: a two-day rehabilitation gathering organized by Fight The Stroke in Milan, interviewing parents who came in pairs or individually.

They were valuable and engaging exchanges.
The participants narrated facts that seemed untenable to us, such as the need to leave work to take care of their child. Sometimes it was difficult to maintain the lucidity and detachment necessary to conduct the interviews.
We worked in pairs where one asked questions while the other one transcribed the answers and took notes, trying to stay objective regarding the conversation.

About all doctors: they speak in medical jargon, they only tell you what they can’t do, never what they can do. You accept it, crying bitter tears and you don’t want to do anything anymore — a mother

They explained to us what it meant. That the scar he had in his brain would remain for life. But this awareness came to us through doctors a little at a time. — a mother

One of the things we learned is that the positivity our son perceives from us is the most important thing — a father

We interviewed a total of 14 parents, including 2 couples, a father and 11 mothers.

The analysis

Fear for the future, doubts about the evolution of the disease, the lack of support from the National Health System are some of the main issues that we reported from these interviews.

Emotions had to be considered and organized in a coherent way.
Following the transcription of the interviews, we worked on categorizing the various elements. This process revealed the existence of three classes:

  • Emotions experienced
  • Needs expressed
  • Critical Issues reported

The three categories identified have been further separated into different components:

  • Emotions: distrust, pressure, loneliness, abandonment, disarmament, fear, frustration, shock
  • Needs: involvement, understanding, knowledge,
  • Critical Issues: economic resources, Health System organization, communication, lack of consideration, lack of medical experience, uncertainty

Graphic representation

By reworking the concept of Affinity Diagram, a concept clustering tool conceived by the Japanese anthropologist Kawakita Jiro, we also introduced also emotions in the representation.

Emotions should not be forgotten. Fear, mistrust, loneliness, abandonment as well as happiness, pride and trust play a fundamental role in our representation.

This is because we start from the heart and we are aware that innovation can not omit the emotional field.

Even when communicating with a Bot or using a web service, its tone of voice, terms, the communication method affects the experience we live and consequently our emotions.

The parents themselves confirmed and enforced our courage — which comes from the heart — to put empathy within our project.

Even if we know we are communicating with a Bot, a mother told us, this was designed by real people, people who understand and experience our problems.

So an encouragement, a word of comfort, even if they come from an App, can be supportive.

Designing with empathy is not creating a false interlocutor, but transferring experience and feeling within a service. An entity that does not aim to replace a human being, but that becomes the speaker of a project created by people.

For this reason, the study of the tone of voice, the analysis of emotions and direct contact with the end-users had a crucial role in our design work.




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