Empathy Interview

As I’ve discussed many times on this blog before, empathy is an important and powerful tool when working on problems. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains. Going back to my post from last week, without empathizing with his end user, Doug didn’t know what he needed to do in order to create another good product.

To practice this I interviewed a friend of mine. The prompt was this: “Use a marker to chart the emotions associated with a specific experience navigating college during the time of COVID as first-year freshman.” While interviewing, I learned a lot about him. He talked about how he was anxious about college starting even before COVID became a thing. He mentioned, “It’s a lot to go from high school to college, especially when you have no clue how everything can change.” Additionally, he mentioned how he was anxious about his roommates. He was worried that he might not mesh well with them or they might be a different person than they represented on their room match profile.

In working with our nonprofit partner I can also use empathy to help better understand their situation. Empathizing with them will better help me understand what their true problems are rather than simply offering a solution without understanding. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains – and more importantly, what solution they need. Again, going back to the example of Doug in the last post, empathy was what helped him to make a solution that was better for patients at the hospital. Before his new system the hospital had to sedate about 80% of kids before doing the scan. Using design thinking and empathy, he was able to reduce that to less than 1%.

The questions that provided the most insight for me were the most open-ended ones. This is because people have a tendency to “fill in the gaps” as they please without having the confines of a question to go around. Humans are naturally social beings and we like to talk. Oftentimes in interviewing people like to leave space around a question so that the interviewee gives more information about the question that you otherwise wouldn’t have known. What got me the least insight were questions with more borders and restrictions. The interviewee is less likely to talk outside of those boundaries you set.


Empathy pt. 2

Recently I watched this TEDx talk by Doug Dietz about empathy in design. He had a very interesting talk in my opinion. Doug is an industrial designer at GE and this talk revolved around the medical division and MRIs. Doug starts off by telling a story. He had just finished designing a new MRI and it got installed at this children’s hospital. He’s admiring his hard work when the MRI tech asks him to step out as they need to use it for a patient. The patient was a young girl. Understandably she had a lot of anxiety about the MRI. She was sobbing in the MRI room when she had to get the scan. That led him to want to create a solution that could make kids less anxious about diagnostic procedures at the hospital. Before his new system the hospital had to sedate about 80% of kids before doing the scan. Using design thinking and empathy, he was able to reduce that to less than 1%.

This goes back to the idea of having empathy in design. I’ve talked about this before and it stands to be re-iterated. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains – and more importantly, what solution they need. This is why at my day job as an IT professional I always try to understand my users’ pains and issues. At the end of the day, not only is it my job to ensure my users to be happy and productive but it’s also just the right thing to do. They can’t be happy and productive if I’m not making sure their needs are met. And I can’t properly ensure their needs are being met without understanding what those needs are. That’s why you need empathy – to understand what your users’ needs and pain points are. This also means you need to be in the environment of your end user. Without being in the environment of his end user, Doug couldn’t have been able to figure out how to make a solution that would reduce kids’ anxiety.

Another facet of solution designing I think is good to consider is looking at things from a beginner’s mindset. This plays into the whole empathy thing. I don’t think you need to design overly complex solutions in the name of designing overly complex solutions (looking at you, vim). If you want to design a solution that truly can work and work well for an end user then it should be accessible to beginners. As in, someone unfamiliar with your solution or the problem should be able to navigate the basics of the solution without hand holding. My test for ease of use is the proverbial “Janice from accounting”. It’s not a reference to anybody specific but just the stereotype of the technologically inept person. The idea being, if someone who calls their computer a “CPU” can use this technological solution, then anybody can. I like to apply that to any kind of solution or explanation I make.



Today I’d like to explore the topic of culture. Overall, culture is just how people work together. Is it casual? Uptight? Scared? A lot of culture depends on leaders. Berkeley actually did a study on this recently and found that narcissistic leaders infect their organization and cause lasting damage even after they leave – “There’s a colorful saying that the ‘fish rots from the head down’—employees see leaders acting like jerks, and they become jerks, too.”

I think a lot of these culture issues stem from a lack of trust. If you don’t trust your team or your leader then not only will you not share your opinion but you won’t be as encouraged to push the boundaries. I’ve even personally experienced this. One example on the good side is the dynamic on the team I’m on at work. Regularly my boss tells me “If I’m asking too much tell me” or “If I’m saying something stupid feel free to say ‘You’re being stupid'”. I trust my boss and he trusts me – and that means not only do I have a good experience but I also get to innovate and feel fine with failure because I know that at the end of the day my boss trusts me to do a good job with the next thing. On the other end, you have a lot of school projects I’ve been on where you get randomly assigned with people you don’t work well with. There’s not a lot of trust there, and as a result work wasn’t able to be done as efficiently or as well as it could have.

A lot of the pressure for setting goals is on leadership. Setting realistic goals is an important part of this. I know a lot of people who like setting super unrealistic goals and are surprised when they don’t achieve them. I don’t believe in that. A better idea is setting realistic goals and setting stretch goals. That way, you get a few benefits. First, you can have something to achieve. If you can look at something and know you can achieve it, it means you’re more likely to attain the goal. Second, you can still have stretch goals. If you hit the stretch goal, great! Celebrate a little. You had a goal that was higher than baseline and you achieved it. But with super crazy high goals, there’s no way you can achieve it.

A lot of it comes down to your team and how they work together. Sometimes you just need to talk to people and understand how they all work together. Talk directly with people and actively observe. Especially pay attention to how people act in times of crisis or stress. Oftentimes in times of crisis or high stress people will revert to what they know. For example this is why a lot of military/tactical people like to train under stress. You can put on a face all day but things are very different when your mind is under pressure.