Empathy as Frog DNA

Alastair Somerville
5 min readMar 22, 2021
Cartoon frog from Jurassic Park movie

In the last few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about accessiBe. It is a product that overlays onto websites to ‘fix’ accessibility problems in the original design. It is an automated tool to solve a problem that other professionals try to fix thru adjusting of original code, using defined web standards and engaging with users to check what problems and solutions actually work. (Advice: do not use accessiBe. Read this post by Adrian Roselli for why).

It is the idea of automation that interests me. Automation is offered as clean technical solution to a problem. It is clean because it uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to fill in gaps.

Automation bridges gaps in service provision while maintaining distance from users. This seems a very weird idea to me. User Experience (UX) design is founded on the idea of human centered design. And yet some professionals go out of their way to avoid contact with users, with humans. They use tools to maintain the gap.

Automation is one tool.

Empathy is another.

Making dinosaurs

Jurassic Park owner, Hammond, inspects mosquito in amber that is part of his walking stick

Jurassic Park introduced the idea of using Frog DNA to fill in the gaps in Dinosaur DNA recovered from blood found in mosquitoes trapped in amber.

This was a solution to the problem of being millions of years away from live dinosaurs. There was no way to get hold of a full DNA strand. Time was a huge gap. Frog DNA filled that gap. It was not necessarily right but it was close enough from the researcher’s perspective. They chose it and with the resulting births of fully alive dinosaurs they proved to themselves that they were right.

Making reasonable guesses to bridge difficult gaps is something that all professionals do. It is one part of what professional judgement is: part of the public leeway they are granted.

In Jurassic Park, this judgement had flaws. Partially to do with assumptions about fully comprehending how dinosaur gender could be controlled. Partially about the idea of breeding dinosaurs.

However, the idea of using one form of DNA to fill in a gap was reasonable. Time was an impossible gap.

What is problematic now is how gaps in UX research are filled in with empathy. Gaps are filled because time is saved by not engaging with users. Gaps are filled because engaging with users creates ‘inefficiencies’.

Mind the gap

I am currently writing a workshop for the Information Architecture Conference (IAC). It is titled Unlearning Design Thinking. It will be a week long series of encounters to talk about problems in how design thinking is implemented and introducing some ideas of emergence (the conference theme).

Stanford Design Thinking process of Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test

Empathy is the start of the process in this Stanford model. It is also embedded into other models, like Google’s, that start with Understanding or Research.

Google design thinking model of understand, diverge, decide, prototype and validate

Empathy (whether emotional or cognitive) is viewed as a tool for helping fill a gap between the users and the designers. It aligns product creation with user needs. Empathy uses our minds to fill the gap.

This sounds great but, like automation, there is a problem and it is often about accessibility and diversity.

Making gaps, maintaining gaps

One of the most poisonous phrases in UX is Edge Users. It is the idea that there are people who are not quite right. They are are distanced from the normal by dint of physical, cognitive or socioeconomic differences. There is a gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Badly structured projects try to recognise Edge Users and make adjustments to products and services so they can just about use them. Really badly structured projects do not even try to recognise them and just build whatever they think fits the needs of people who are like themselves.

Empathy is supposed to be a tool to fill this gap. However, it can be a tool to maintain it.

Why speak to users with differing physical and cognitive needs when you can read about them and empathise? Why not do some exercises that imitate the difference and then use empathy to fill in the gaps? These approaches are efficient: they are cheap and fast.

Edge Users are also described as Hard To Reach Groups: enforcing the idea that not merely are they different but they are distant.

Empathy, like Frog DNA, fills those gaps. You can fix the accessibility and diversity problems without all the hassle of costs, time and travel to research with Edge Users.

This is using the power of human imagination and empathy to avoid human contact, to avoid hard conversations and to avoid new relationships. This, like automation, is UX and technologists (particularly those often referred to as TechBros) choosing efficiency and homogeneity in order to design and make things that appeal to themselves and people they know.

Currently the IAC workshop design is about techniques to enable diversity and divergence in design thinking. Some are based on work in accessibility that I do and some are based in work on Dissent and Post Normal Design. To be honest, I am more interested in creating a time and place for people to share their own experiences and ideas. It is seeking out diversity and enabling divergence that matters.

Empathy is a good thing but it can be misused. Being honest about how it is being used by organisations is crucial. Is it filling gaps or maintaining them is a good question to start with.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX