Compassionate user experience

Compassion is quite the eye-opener.

There is often bitterness in software development. It is not hard to see the tense relationships between developers and marketing, between users and customer support, between business and IT. When I entered the UX field nine years ago, I put myself in the interesting and strange position of being the intermediary, the emissary, in a protracted cold war.

By itself, UX is hard. There are many threads woven into the fabric of what we call User Experience. Information Architecture, derived from library sciences; Usability Engineering, which comes from the archetypal white-lab-coat scientific approach; Interaction Design, which borrows from anthropology; and Graphic Design, with its vibrant connection to culture and creativity. And the merging of these approaches brings with it some discomfort, as practitioners try to embrace tools and techniques from disciplines that have very different origins, and sometimes conflicting worldview.

Adding to this discomfort is the challenging position of translator between tech, business, and users. It’s not easy being a scientist-librarian-anthropologist-designer, and it is not easy being the go-between for groups and constituency that have had long-standing miscommunication, based on fundamentally different values.

Compassion helps. I do not subscribe to the Buddhist religion, but I do agree with many of its philosophical underpinnings. And I believe it is a tremendous asset, a powerful tool, to be able to develop unconditional acceptance, respect, and love for your constituencies. To be a good UX practitioner, I believe you have to love your users, love your developers, love your suits, and love your sales folks… Especially if they don’t love each other.

You need not only to understand what they want, but why they want it. You need to understand their context, the context in which their goals make complete sense. You need to take on their goals and fears as if they were yours. You need to do this for all your constituencies. At the end of this process, if you’ve not become irreparably schizophrenic, you can actually start resolving their issues in a way that works for them, instead of just for yourself.

I learned that lesson anew every time. As a former designer and developer, I had to let go of my latent negative stereotypes about users. I was helped by Alan Cooper’s aphorism to view users as “smart, but very busy.” I was helped most, of course, by the pernicious power of contextual inquiry (observing users in their workplace), which ensures you will relate to your users as you gather their requirements.

As a newly enamored user advocate, I had to play against the knee-jerk apprehensiveness of developers, and keep myself involved in code reviews and architecture discussions, database schemas and framework discussions. I did this because I understood the very real, dire, critical importance of making the right technical decisions early.

Loving each new client became easier and easier, as I gained more insight into the intricacies of various businesses and industries. It took longer to fully embrace and accept management, until I was put in positions of leadership, and discovered how hard it is to keep an open heart while juggling the diverse responsibilities of project, client relations, vision, motivation, morale, and time.

I use some little mind-tricks on myself to keep an open, compassionate heart. If I am angered by or disappointed in someone, I put myself in their shoes: I have angered and disappointed others before, I know what that feels like. I take a moment to empathize. I take a moment to remember the context that person is operating in. Then I try to offer the reaction that is appropriate and useful to the receiver.

Usually somewhere in the middle of this process, a thought comes that chases away all the anger, and leaves the mind sharp and clear. Empathy becomes possible again, as well as rational, constructive, creative and positive thinking. Since I’ve started using this process, I do talk a lot less! I also rarely waste time explaining, justifying, and fighting for my knee-jerk emotional responses.

I’ve also found compassion to be contagious, inspiring, and empowering. I took the habit of using my little compassion exercise to deal with office gossip. If we’re talking about someone who’s absent, I’ll talk about what I’ve observed about their values, their virtues, their vitality. Conversation soon turns back to the actual issue, instead of character judgment.

You can’t do that in a condescending way, of course. You have to be compassionate toward those who feel the need to gossip.

They’re all very good people. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

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