Empathy is an essential skill for those who design and manage websites and apps. It’s hard to have empathy for a user.
The single biggest challenge I have found that web professionals face is the disconnect they have with the people they are supposed to serve. In fact, many web professionals do not even think of themselves as having customers. They see themselves as writers who create content, as programmers who create code, as visuals designers who create layouts.
The person all this activity is directed towards is a user. They come to the Web in waves of traffic and when they interact they create hits. What do the Web and drugs have in common? Users, traffic, hits.
The dehumanizing of humans has a long history in computer science. Deep down in the psyche of IT, people are the problem, software is the solution. This lack of empathy and understanding of real people with real needs leads to technology, interfaces and content that are not fit for purpose.
There is now a movement to put people first; before content, before technology, before design. Facebook, for example, has recently announced that they have started referring to people as people, not users.
"As somebody once said: It's kind of arrogant to think the only reason people exist is to use what you built,” Facebook’s director of product design, Margaret Gould Stewart, told the Atlantic Navigate conference in December 2014. “They actually have lives, like, outside the experience they have using your product, and so the first step of designing in a human-centered way is to recognize that they're humans."
In 2012, Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter and founder and CEO of Square stated that, “It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word “user.” We speak about “user-centric design,” “user benefit,” “user experience,” “active users” and even “usernames.” While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis.
“From this moment forward,” Jack Dorsey continued, “let’s stop distancing ourselves from the people that choose our products over our competitors. We don’t have users, we have customers we earn. They deserve our utmost respect, focus and service. Because that’s who we are.”
If we work in a restaurant we meet the people who eat there. If we work in a supermarket we meet the people who shop there. But when it comes to the Web, everyone works in the back office. We don’t see people, we see screens of code, of content, of designs. The web team exists within a bubble, totally disconnected from the people it’s supposed to serve.
If we want to create great web services we must make a concerted effort to bring people into the center of our thinking and work. Naming them in an empathetic way is a good start. But what is far more important is that every week we think, talk, observe and interact with them. What’s the magic formula for empathy? The more time you spend with people the more empathy you are likely to develop for them.