Empathy in All Things

Digital Empathy by Julianne Swartz, 2011

Empathy is something I have always personally valued, and tried hard to incorporate into all my interactions. But it’s only recently that I’ve begun to think about the importance of empathy in the professional realm and in online interactions. Putting yourselves in the shoes of your customers, patrons, students, users—whoever you’re interacting with professionally—seems so simple and yet so essential to me. But: how often do we consider empathy when designing online tools/tutorials/websites? Are we including empathy when designing our products and teaching our students? What about those online courses we’ve been hearing so much about (MOOC anyone?). Where’s the empathy there?

I learned that there are some designers who are considering how to design and create with empathy when I attended a session at InfocampPDX this year called Designing for Empathy, which was based on this design tool put together by technology product design company, Artefact (with a sincere thanks to my now-friend Nicki Vance and her colleague Krystal South from Citizen+ who gave the presentation that opened my mind to this idea). I was so thrilled to learn that such a tool and process existed: it’s something I was never able to articulate but spoke exactly to what I thought was important. Designing our online tools, not to mention our in-person interactions, with empathy means figuring out how to connect with your users, students, or customers. It means thinking about, and asking them, what they need—not just what you think they need. Perhaps even getting them to participate in helping design the tool you’re building, or the learning experience you’re trying to put together for them.

Certainly face-to-face interactions foster empathy most effectively, but there are other ways to do this, too. Luckily, for bookworms like me, reading fiction has actually been shown to foster empathy. And interactions on social media like Twitter and Facebook happen to boost Oxytocin levels, making people feel more connected. More connection means more empathy, at least as I see it. Since I actually create a lot of online learning objects, and help patrons at a distance, I wonder how we can foster more of this connection and empathy in educational or professional online spaces? What is it about Twitter and Facebook interactions that helps create those Oxytocin-boosting connections? How can we bring that into our online course spaces, learning objects, online chats with users and patrons, etc.? I think there’s a lot of potential in this design concept in education and for all online tools and interactions. It’s a space a lot of us spend, well, a lot of time in. So shouldn’t connection and empathy be important components? I’d love to spend more than 15 minutes exploring it, myself. For instance, I love what Ben Weinlick of Think Jar Collective says in his post about Empathy in all aspects of creativity, design thinking, marketing and human services. There’s so much here to consider. So I’ll keep thinking on it, and hope for professional opportunities to design, teach, and create with empathy— digitally and face to face. This is definitely a topic to revisit.

Quick note on today’s image: this was part of a public art installation called “Digital Empathy” (natch) by Julianne Swartz on NYC’s High Line from 2011-2012, and I want to make sure I give credit where credit is due. It’s an image that struck me when I saw it on my first High Line visit, and I was sorry to find out it wasn’t a permanent fixture. I think her overall piece conveys a lot about the good and the bad of connection and empathy in the physical and digital world. Check out this video of Julianne Swartz discussing the purpose and ideas behind her piece. More tomorrow!