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IT System Design: Why Empathy is The Key To Digital Success

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What comes to mind when you think of technology and digital? Maybe your mind wanders forward, and you become concerned about the impact of rogue or unbridled AI. Or maybe you are amazed by SpaceX and competing variants. Or you picture thousands of coders working for startups or digital giants creating the next amazing app or device.

One place I’m confident your mind didn’t immediately go to was the concept of empathy. But if I asked you what companies or products you admired, or what apps or digital experiences you identified with, you’d likely think about experiences that made you feel good or comfortable or fulfilled.

If you aren’t a designer or product manager, you might not relate the experience to empathy, but the people behind the best products, the best digital experiences, the best apps certainly do.

Understanding User and Customer Requirements

Having spent my entire career either developing apps or involved in the product management and product marketing of technology, I’ve long been involved in understanding user and customer requirements and designing systems and apps. And I’ve focused on designing go-to market and sales and marketing programs that effectively engage a target audience.

But I would be lying if I said that I always saw the connection between functional design and empathy, after all, at my core I’m a developer and was more interested in the tech, in making the program work, that is what compelled me. Digital ethics came more naturally to me as I could more easily see that whether in person or interacting digitally, ethics, fairness, equality, etc., are relevant in either case.

The thing that made me more aware of the importance of empathy was my transition from a developer to product management and marketing. In this role I interact a lot with marketers when planning and executing marketing campaigns. Creative material – both visual, verbal or written – are key to sales and marketing success, so understanding and connecting with the target audience is essential.

As consumers we all know brands or retail interactions that have connected with us emotionally. In the B2B context, we don’t necessarily engage at a deep emotional level, but understanding everything about the people you engage with, including their desired outcome, challenges, etc., is key to success.

The Value of Thinking Intentionally

I started thinking more intentionally about design and empathy when I was creating a technology research survey and I knew that it was important to avoid unconscious bias in terms of the survey design.

It made me rethink my approach to the requirements and design process since both forms of research could be tainted without the right approach. I had long since augmented the requirements process with persona research, which carried over to the marketing side, but I realized that assumptions and generalizations may have affected the quality of my research. Since this time, I have made sure that I consider these best practices:

  • Ensure diverse user base to accurately represent the target population including those with disabilities.
  • Encourage and build curiosity with active listening, building a collection of user quotes, pictures and videos.
  • Use of open-ended questions to get the user to explain things in a way that is more revealing about their problems, desires, etc.
  • Think solution-focused when considering requirements by understanding the entire system without being confined to the specifics of the app combined with rapid feedback via prototyping and other activities.

User-Centered Design Concepts

While I haven’t formally adopted comprehensive or formal empathy maps, I’ve learned and would recommend using user-centered design concepts to ensure that your team members are aware of their own potential biases or pre-conceived notions by rooting themselves in the perspective of the user and how they think and feel. Relating specifically to empathy,

  • Engage with users in the research emotionally and as much as possible, put yourself into their situation.
  • Use the core principle of knowing yourself before you can know others and then seek to learn from others so that you can know them.
  • Use a blank canvas approach in the requirements and design process to find new ways of seeing and thereby solving a problem.
  • Seek to establish a deep connection and understanding of the target user by seeing the world through their eyes with the aim of providing a tailor-made solution.

Luckily there are many resources available on the related topics like ethical design, design and empathy, that can provide more guidance in your efforts.

I’m interested not only in how empathy can improve the requirements and design process, but how empathy can improve the entire app dev process by better relating to the other counterparts involved in the process – designers thinking about developers, developers thinking about testers and IT Ops, and vice versa.

I think digital ethics and empathy can be the foundation of engaging experiences, can reduce friction in the app dev process, and can foster excellent team leadership and camaraderie.

About the Author: 

Mark Troester is the VP of Strategy of Progress

 

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