November 2015

A Designers Guide to Empathy

A talk about design, advertising, chemicals, responsibility, bookmarking, silicon valley and luggage. First presented at UX Day Graz 2015.

Good afternoon.

This is a talk about design, advertising, chemicals, responsibility, bookmarking, silicon valley and luggage.

I am fully aware that that doesn’t sound like it’s going to make any sense whatsoever, but I trust that with the collective imagination in this room, you’ll be able to extract some meaning out of it in the end.

But just to be safe, there are two things I’d like to do in order to make sure that you take something positive away from this talk. First of all, I’d like to show you this picture of a pug, dressed like a slightly larger pug.

Second, I’m going to flip this talk on its head. I’ll tell you the conclusions first and then just ramble on for the remaining 44 minutes. So here they are.

Know the power and limits of what you can learn through data.

Expose yourself to the world of the people who use your product.

Make small improvements to the world and be proud of them.

Those are the conclusions. If you are the kind of person who only reads the last three pages of books, then you are free to go now. Otherwise, make yourselves comfortable, and we’ll start with the critical part.

When I started getting into designing digital interfaces, which wasn’t too long ago, we were mostly thinking of interfaces as specialized use cases. Computers were places that you go to in order to use them.

Then of course we made them small enough to take with us everywhere and we cut the cords to have connectivity even when we were away from our desks.

And then we made them even smaller and added more antennas and a touch screen, so that we could carry them with us at all times.

We now spend more time in our browsers than in bed…

…and we spend more time with our smartphones than with our loved ones. This is a radically different world. And that transformation has been hugely favorable for us as user experience designers. Our industry is booming. Jobs in UI design are exploding and new and ever more specialized university degrees sprouting everywhere.

But this brave new world didn’t come for free. It comes with a cost for society and with a cost for us as creators.

Let’s start with society in general. Our entire dilemma begins with the fact that we are working with limited resources. And I’m not talking about the limited amount of pixels you have on a screen or about the limited number of developers on our project teams. I’m talking about the one thing that our creations consume when they are being used: Human attention

Another way of saying that is that we are all in the business of consuming human lifetime. And ideally, that’s a good thing. Because we are taking that resource of time and attention and refine it into meaningful experiences, effortlessly completed tasks and a generally happier world.

This is where the cost for us as creators comes into play. The price we pay for benefiting disproportionally from these boom times, is being partially responsible for larger and larger portions of life in our society.

Let me tell you a story about what happens when we get things wrong at scale. Usually in talks like these, people tend to talk about the mistakes of others and the amazing accomplishments of themselves. And don’t worry, I will rant plenty about the mistakes of others soon enough, but first I’d like to tell you about a case where we screwed up massively.

I work for Mozilla. We make a browser. You might know it. You might even use it.

As every other browser, Firefox gives you the option to bookmark websites in order to remember them for later. And we take great pride in the fact that we even have this cute little animation, that doesn’t just look good, but also shows the user that a newly saved bookmark can be retrieved through that button right next to it. Go good news is: that part of the interaction works exceptionally well. The bad part is everything that happens afterwards.

I would like to show you a video. It shows someone in a user test saving a bookmark and then trying to retrieve it again. It’s not short. It takes almost two minutes. But I would like to watch all of it with you.

Video of a user test plays. I don't embed it here to protect the participants’ privacy. The video shows a test participant struggle to find a bookmark she just saved for almost 2 minutes.

I hope that right now, you are feeling the same discomfort that I am feeling. Here we see an actual human being waste two minutes of her life because we implemented a crappy system. And it’s not just that one person wasting two minutes.

Scale magnifies every design mistake we are making. Firefox has around 400 million users. If every user encounters this scenario once, we have wasted more than 1500 years of human attention. That’s roughly 18 lifetimes, lost because of a flawed design.

Needless to say: we are working on fixing that.

So it is possible to burn a lot of human lifetime through confusing interfaces and UI mistakes. But let’s dig a little deeper here. Let’s assume that we get all the basics of interface design right and that our products are stellar examples of effective UI. The next question is: have we designed the right product?

I would like to talk to you about a chemical. This is oxytocin. They call it the love chemical. When it is released in our body, it creates a feeling of relaxation and psychological stability. We are calmer and more trusting when oxytocin is in our system.

It is released in vast amounts after child birth, when it is responsible for the bond between a mother and her child. But there are also other times when we feel its effects. Human touch and human contact are triggers. Hugging. Or even just shaking hands. And of course we get a taste of oxytocin when we are treated kindly or when we experience gratitude.

But it gets even better: We don’t even have to be treated kindly directly in order for oxytocin to be released, it is sufficient to witness acts of compassion. If you have ever read about someone selflessly helping those in need, you probably had an emotional reaction to that. That’s oxytocin rushing through your body.

But there is also another chemical that I’d like to mention. This is not the nice and friendly chemical that oxytocin is. Yet we all experience it all the time. I’m talking about cortisol. Cortisol is the chemical associated with stress and anxiety.

Cortisol makes us anxious. It increases our heart rate, injects glucose into our muscles to make them tense and it makes us paranoid.

And we share it with all social mammals. If you’ve ever seen a documentary about gazelles, you know that moment when one of them thinks it heard something in the grass and shoots up. And just a split second later, all the heads of all the other gazelles shoot up as well. We can sense nervousness and anxiety in our peers and it affects our own biochemistry.

Cortisol is the first stage of fight or flight. It is designed to give us a short burst of attention and energy at the expense of other functions. It shuts down growth temporarily and it dials back our immune functions. That’s a great system if you’re a gazelle or early human and have to run away from a lion. Much less so when you’re a human in the 21st century.

You might be asking at this point: That’s amazing Philipp, but how on earth does that matter for what I do? Let me answer with a question: Who of you has ever shouted at a computer or a smartphone?

Almost all hands go up

We treat devices as humans. The chemicals in our bodies can’t distinguish between man and machine. It is time that we start talking about technology in human terms again.

Is it dignified? Is it rude? Is it compassionate?

At their worst, the things we create can serve as a drip infusion of cortisol. Where every click, every tap and every notification can be the bringer of great misfortune.

If I click the wrong button, I might lose the work from the last hour and I’m already running late on this deadline.

Did I just tap reply-all on an email that was supposed to be confidential?

What was that vibration in my pocket? I hope it doesn't mean more work!

But when they are at their best, they can not only not waste our time. They can give us a sense of accomplishment, of fulfillment and of connection. We treat each device and each application like a human, so it is our job to make sure that this human is not behaving like a douchebag.

Let’s keep all of that in mind when we think about the fact that we are in the middle of entering a brand new era that is as rich with opportunity as it is with danger. I’m talking, of course, about the fact that we are about to put a chip and an antenna into every single object on earth.

We are very much in the experimental phase of that era, which is just great for cynical people like myself because it gives us all these hilarious inventions.

Like this one: Haven’t we all looked at our socks at some point and thought: »Dang, I wish that thing could talk to my phone!«

Or how about this? It’s called the Vessyl. It’s a cup. But it’s a very smart cup because it can tell you what you just poured into it and then send it to the cloud. So when you’re sitting alone at home and drinking beer from the can seems just a little too pedestrian, you can just pour it in there and then get reassurance that it's actually beer you're drinking!

But my favorite has to be this one: this little device is called the Spire. It literally reminds you to breathe. And that’s important, because as we all know, doctors tell us that there’s a high correlation between breathing and not dying.

They even have this amazing endorsement on their website and I genuinely can’t tell whether or not this is sarcasm.

It is easy to make fun of these things, and it’s OK to enjoy that. But lets not forget that every single time in history when technology made a leap, we have responded by getting all the stupid stuff out of our system first.

We actually invented a vending machine for tanning spray that looked like a fuel pump.

Or who can forget the gun with an integrated photo camera? It takes a picture when you pull the trigger. Never since then has the word »head shot« been more ambiguous.

And of course we had the family bike! It even featured a special seat for mommy, complete with a sewing machine. That way she could be a productive member of the family, even on a Sunday ride!

The point is, that there will be a moment when we are going to get past the hilarious niche products and start creating things that are useful and have broad appeal. And when this happens, we will be looking at a generation of devices that surround us in our most intimate spaces.

Technology has progressively moved closer and closer to humans, augmenting ever more aspects of our lives. I am still a pretty young person, but within my lifetime we have moved from computers being seen as specialized machinery to a world where it is perfectly normal to have a tiny computer with you while you are in the bathroom. Every step on that journey has placed more and more responsibility in the hands of the creators of these products and services that we are letting into our lives.

So how can we act on that? How can we take on that responsibility? How can we build the empathy that is needed to build products that succeed on the human level? Obviously, we’ll need to know more about the world around us and the people who use our products. And the current cool kid on the block when it comes to knowing anything is of course data.

Data is a huge opportunity. For the first time we can broadly know what percentage of users do what in our apps and websites. But it feels like a lot of the design community has been caught by surprise, and we don’t really know how to handle data and how to make sense of it.

Because unlike what some people argue, you can’t just »look at the data and it will tell you what to do«. Data is practically useless for informing design decisions without interpretation. And naïve reading of data can cause a lot of harm. If as designers, we don’t know what selection bias is; if we can’t distinguish between statistically significant and anecdotal evidence, we are destined to make flawed decisions.

Just to give you a taste of where data can be unclear, there’s a wonderful website called spurious correlations, which shows off amazing facts like that the number of suicides by hanging, strangulation or suffocation are correlating with the number of lawyers in North Carolina. So the naïve reading of that data would suggest that we should immediately move all the lawyers out of North Carolina!

We should also lock up Nicholas Cage, or at the very least keep him a way from movie cameras, because the number of films that he starred in correlates with the number of people drowning by falling into a pool.

But even if the correlation makes sense, it can be tricky to determine what to do with it. For example: we know that having Firefox set as your default browser on your system correlates with higher usage. We just don’t know in which direction the causality points there. Are people who have it set as their default browser ending up in Firefox more often because when they click a link elsewhere, that’s the browser that opens up? Or are people who use Firefox heavily just much more likely to actually set it as their default? Or maybe it is any mixture of the two!

Data is an opportunity, but it is not free knowledge. We need to know its properties, its limitations and its pitfalls if we want to use it effectively.

There is of course another way to gain knowledge about how and why people are using your products. If you have a formal education in interface design, then you certainly did this to at least some extent. What I am talking about is of course qualitative user research. Qualitative user research was the star of UI design in the early 2000s. There were all these books telling you how you could build a user research lab on the cheap. So you would sit down with somebody in a lab, with a video camera pointed at them and start having a conversation with them.

Then came the data cult. And like so many cults it started with reasonable motivations. With the move of many applications to the cloud, you suddenly didn’t have to ask a user whether or not he would click a button anymore. We can know with absolute certainty that the button was clicked. We can know how many times it was clicked, what the next button after that was and how long it took a user to decide clicking the button. When we can know so much, why should we spend the time and money to sit down with people and interpret what they are saying?

The reason is this: Humans are unpredictable, mushy bags of irrationality and emotion.

And there are some properties within us that simply don’t expose themselves through collected data. And those properties make all the difference when you are working on a product or product strategy.

Let me tell you a little story about a qualitative research effort that the Firefox team made early this year. We wanted to understand how people were using multiple devices. So we conducted in-depth interviews with people in the United States and in Southeast Asia. We actually went into their homes and and talked to them in the context of their daily lives. I had the pleasure to accompany our researchers to Las Vegas, which turns out to be a surprisingly average city once you get away from the strip and the crazy people.

That entire trip was an extremely humbling experience, because it showed everyone how much we all live in a bubble. I know that it is common sense to say »You are not your user«. But we know them pretty well, right? We are using our product as well, so how different can it be?

Well, for starters, our mental models are completely different. It isn’t uncommon at all to encounter people saying that they don’t use the internet, but are really into Facebook. Once we know how something like the internet works, it is impossible to unlearn.

Or just look at education. Most of the people designing and building digital products have a university education. Most people using those products don’t.

And most of all, we know about our options. We are working with technology every day. Most of us are even interested in it. We read the tech press. We know what the trends are. It’s part of our jobs. But when we go out there and look at how people are using digital products, we don’t see best practices. We see hacks. We see people sending emails to themselves with screenshots of spreadsheets that they would then print out in order to review and annotate before taking a picture of them and texting them to someone else. Technology is still a slightly intimidating mystery to lots of people. And every ever so little change in their workflow and in the tools that they use is a step outside their comfort zones that is really, really hard for them.

It is easy to discard those cases as outliers or as people who just have to catch up with the times, especially when you hear about it second hand. That’s why it is so important to be there in person and experience the emotional state of your users ourselves.

We can only develop empathy for individuals, not for entire groups of people. Even less so when those groups of people are abstracted away behind diagrams.

While data keeps us in touch with reality on a quantitative and rational level, sitting next to users and experiencing their emotional reactions keeps us in touch with reality on a qualitative and human level.

And that’s a hard thing to do. Design is an extremely vulnerable practice. The things we create always carry a part of ourselves within them. When we put them out there and watch people struggle with using them, it hits us personally. But I would argue that this is a good thing. Because if we can empathize with our users; if we can feel what they feel, then we will be able to build great products with a human dimension.

Let’s change pace here for a bit. Right now you are probably flying high in the sky, psyched and full of energy to go out there and make your own dent in the universe with the products that you create. I’d like to point the metaphorical plane downward now, crashing through the cloud and then – hopefully – pulling up last minute before we hit the ground.

And the place above which I would like to perform this maneuver is San Francisco and silicon valley. It’s the place that so much of the technological innovation of the past few decades has come from. And I would like to show you that it is now time for everyone else to step in, because they seem to have dropped the ball.

Let’s start with the way that all of the internet seems to be making its money at the moment. Advertising. There has been a lot of talk about ad blockers recently. The arguments went back and forth whether they were good or bad; whether using them is a consumer right, or a criminal act. But I’m not even going to go into the debate about how ads are making the web slow and how large advertising networks are tracking users’ every moves through the internet. What I find much more troubling is that advertising as a business model aims to capturing a maximum amount of our time and attention. Fulfilling a task or making us happy are at best secondary considerations. This is happening in every medium, from billboards that divert attention from the road to TV commercials breaking the flow of the story we are watching. But it is particularly nefarious on the internet, because of the bidirectional nature of the medium.

And we still describe our interactions with ads with cute little words like »annoying« or »distracting«. But that might be a crass misreading of the nature of online advertising as a business. I love the phrase »capturing eyeballs« because it has a certain honesty in its brutality.

In the words of James Williams: In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live.

But even if you do have an ad blocker that removes all the banners and towers and popups, you didn’t really solve the situation, even for yourself. Because the sites and apps you are using will still be built with the intent of capturing and selling as much of your attention as possible. They can’t sell it anymore now, but they are still designed to keep us clicking and scrolling.

There is a very delicate entanglement between the way startups in the valley are funded and the way they are incentivized to burn our attention. Here’s how funding a startup works:

You have an idea that you might think is genuinely compelling. You then figure out how to make that idea sound like it is the most amazing thing in the world ever. You then go to a venture capitalist or angel investor or incubator and you tell them your story. What you can’t do however, is talk about how this thing is ever going to make money. That’s a suckers’ game. Instead you should focus on selling the dream: that your amazing app or service will grow in an exponential hockey stick. That you will create a gigantic audience whose attention you can control and that your investors will get filthy rich once they can sell on this hope at the big IPO. Venture capitalists are investing in your ability to grow, not your ability to make money.

By the valley logic, if you don’t grow – and exponentially at that – then you’re worthless. They even have a term for companies that are stable and turning a profit: they call them »the living dead«. So it is not just about capturing a lot of attention, it is about doubling the amount of attention you’re burning every year or every quarter.

Given that scale and reach is the absolute measure in the valley, it is unsurprising that local and incremental improvements are not the business of the startups there anymore. It’s not enough to make a dent in the universe. You have to fucking own the universe. A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.

Who of you has been to San Francisco in the recent years? A few hands go up

Who has been shocked by the amount of homelessness you see in the streets there? All hands stay up

Let me paint a picture for those of you who weren’t there: when you walk through the streets of this undoubtedly beautiful city, you see misery everywhere. You see people sleeping on the streets and on squares, even though those squares have been purposefully designed to make lying down as uncomfortable as possible. You see people with mental illnesses mumbling and shouting at imaginary foes. In short, you see a thick crust of poverty on one of the richest areas in the world.

It is telling that at the height of a boom that has been sustained for over a decade, that industry didn’t manage to help those closest to them. The objective is to either eat the entire world with software, or support those working on eating the world. That’s why currently, every first-world problem imaginable is being solved in that area, along with some pretty unimaginable ones.

There are services to deliver food from any restaurant straight to your face.

Luxury commuter buses conveniently shield you from having to travel with the plebs.

There are even services that move your trash cans a few meters to the curb for you every week. All those services conveniently abstract away human labor behind a web interface. We call it the service economy.

So so the dominant startup trends at the moment are to either grab as much of our attention as possible, or to cater to the needs of a tiny and affluent minority.

This is not the kind of system that I want to depend on shape our future. This is not a system where design is on the side of the user.

But I like to think that this is actually a great opportunity for everyone else. It is an opportunity to step up and make all the small, incremental improvements, that make the world a little better, without being distracted by fever dreams disruption.

And some of the most impressive and global innovations have actually come out of solving small problems.

Let me emphasize that point with one last story. I came here from Munich by taking a plane. Besides the fact that the current strike of airline personnel was driving my cortisol levels up, one thing I’ve noticed is how people move around at the airport. You all know that picture: busy people running to catch their flights, all dragging a suitcase with them.

When I think back to the first vacations I was on when I was a kid, that was a different picture. Few people could afford to run with their luggage, because they would have had to carry it. It didn't have wheels! If it was heavy, they would have to stop every few meters to recover and then soldier on for a few paces.

This is US patent 3,652,474, by Bernard D. Sadow. He was an airline pilot who realized that part of his life sucked and decided to do something about it. The patent was filed in 1970. It took almost 60 years from the birth of commercial air travel to the moment we started putting wheels on luggage. It took more than 6000 years between the invention of the wheel and that moment.

It seems so simple in retrospect. A mildly talented kid could conceivably build such a thing out of her moms’ suitcase and her toys. And yet it took us so long. There are vast amounts unsolved and undiscovered problems in the world, waiting for someone to fix them to move us forward.

We have the tools to do this. We can know more and do more than ever before if we are able to work with data effectively, while preserving our ability to be empathic on the individual level. And when we act on that, it will not only help us be successful at our jobs, it will help move us forward as a society, one step at a time.

In the biological and evolutionary sense, the only reason for an organism to exist is to create or refine information. Traditionally, we did that by mutating biologically, and then dying early without producing offspring when the mutation wasn’t favorable. The moment that some creature, presumably still more monkey than human, shaped an artifact – probably a tool – that it left behind after its death, we short-circuited this mechanism. These are the oldest stone tools discovered in the world. They are around 3.3 million years old and have been discovered in Kenya. Whoever the monkey/human was who shaped it, he or she has helped set into motion everything that we call society today.

We are all the heirs of that monkey.

We are creating the artifacts that will outlive us. And it is up to us what we are going to set in motion with them.

Here's a picture of some baby goats for you.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks to Maciej Cegłowski, DHH, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Daniel Kahnemann, Simon Sinek, James Williams and Travis Gertz from whom I have shamelessly stolen ideas for this talk.