Closing the distance between now and the future

New approaches for building systems empathy in design

John Payne
Sep 27, 2016 · 4 min read

I recently wrote an article for EPIC People, a global organization focused on ethnography in business and design. That piece, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding?” takes on the empathy backlash beginning to ripple through the research and design community.

Still from “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” video, by Elvis Costello, 1979

My assertion is that empathy remains crucial for good design, but that we need to get beyond the “user” and their “needs” to build empathy for every participant in the complex systems we design. Extending that argument, here are some further thoughts on building systems empathy by situating us and our audiences together in a nonexistent—but possible—future.

Empathizing with an audience who doesn’t yet exist

Speculative design and anticipatory ethnography

The traditional model of design invariably arrives at a singular ‘preferable’ outcome. Speculative design is distinct in that it strives to open up a discursive space that is underwritten by the unavoidable plurality of the future. As Dunne & Raby put it “the idea is not to show how things will be but to open up a space for discussion.” —Lindley, Sharma & Potts from EPIC 2014 Proceedings (login to read)

Still from “Anticipatory Ethnography: Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography” EPIC 2014

The authors go on offer three possible approaches for bringing anticipatory ethnography into the design process:

  • Studying the process of creating a design fiction
  • Studying how an audience interacts with or perceives a design fiction
  • Studying the content of a design fiction

All three of these approaches hold significant promise for helping us and our audiences achieve the “situated-ness” necessary to engage empathically with possible futures.

Learning from live systems

Still from “Learning From Live Systems: A Design Approach for Behavior” video, Interaction 16

Interaction design is not about computing technology. Behavior is our medium.—Robert Fabricant

Josh’s assertion: If behavior is our medium, then we as designers need to mold and shape the behaviors we seek while we work. Recognizing that they could more quickly build empathy if people interacted directly with the product, they created a web site front-end of the system, but instead of building any back-end technology, they performed all the functions of the matching system manually for a period of time using spreadsheets and email. Operating the proof-of-concept as a live service gave them the opportunity to prototype and iterate with the community directly to learn what was viable. Once they had learned enough about how people would use this new service, they designed and built the technology that would replace what they had been doing manually.

Simulating tomorrow to build empathy today

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