Alastair Somerville

Apr 19, 2016

3 min read

Familiarity and empathy in design awareness

I was watching a Twitter discussion yesterday about airline seats and how annoying it is when people recline the seat in front of you.

This conversation was amongst people who work in Accessibility and Inclusive Design.

The conversation presumed that the behaviour was obnoxious and anti-social.

However, later on a post (and micro-blog) appeared from another person noting that they reclined their seat for essential reasons due to their personal impairment. They needed to avoid real pain not just selfishly stretch out a bit more.

This discussion highlights the problem of maintaining empathy and awareness. It opened with a clear presumption and public agreement that a behaviour was unreasonable yet finished with a proof that it can be reasonable and essential.

Cognitive Accessibility

I was facilitating a workshop a few weeks ago on the design issues in Cognitive Accessibility.

One of the discussions in that workshop was about how to manage a coach trip where one passenger has Tourette’s Syndrome.

This scenario raised two interesting points.

Familiarity as a trap

When a person behaves in certain ways, people normally identify that behaviour with what they have encountered before. The familiar pattern is what they presume to be true

So, for most people, a person using bad language is an asshole. A person to avoid or berate. The reaction is based on the familiar, the experienced, the expected.

Yet it goes wrong. The person with Tourette’s Syndrome is not an asshole. The behaviour is not the one people are familiar with.

For designers, it is this familiarity and presumption that things reflect their own (and public) biases and experiences that can create problems. Their solutions are based on a misidentification of behaviour and reality.

Empathy for the right person

Secondly, this scenario shows how easily empathy is applied to the wrong people.

Who has the problem in the coach trip?

Is it the passengers who travel with a person with Tourette’s Syndrome or vice versa?

Often, designers will presume to manage a person’s behaviour for the benefit of the crowd. They empathise with the people offended by the language not the person who has Tourette’s Syndrome. The solutions created are about managing the individual not the crowd. The person is the problem not the crowd.

This is misapplied empathy.

The aggravation and offence felt by the crowd may be real and may be strong but it is the person who has Tourette’s Syndrome who needs design assistance. They are the one behaving normally (within the spectrum of their person): the crowd is behaving oddly.

The crowd needs managing. The solutions need to be about them not the individual.

Designing for inclusion

Finally, to come back to the opening issue of airline seats and the essential need to recline, there is a problem for everyone about how to discover and design for personal needs with respect.

A person who reclines their seat to avoid pain should not need to explain why to others. It is their life, their need.

Yet, without explanation, that behaviour is lumped in with selfish acts. People cannot actively empathise or understand as the need is invisible to them. It is hidden by the familiar and expected behaviours.

I cannot actually offer any advice on this.

The respect for personal need and privacy must outweigh the public desire to know and understand.

Being more aware of the diversity of human needs and the invisible nature of many them may help.

Respect for people means being more open to all behaviours: whether they are selfish or they are essential.

Sometimes it’s about you not the other person.

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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Alastair Somerville

Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX