Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 57 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Empathy vs Participation in Design #LXConf

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 57 seconds

I have registered to attend the LX Conference, taking place fully online May 15-19, and in preparation for it, I read a Medium post by the first speaker. Indi Young. This is a longer reflection on what I wrote in the discussion forum for the conference (which is locked only for registered users – it’s a really well-priced conference at $95 and starts tomorrow)

What I Posted to the Discussion Forum

I read a recent article by Indi Young about empathy in design, and about how important it is for the designers to almost immerse themselves in understanding the user before even imagining the product or even posing the problem for which they plan to design a product. This struck me as something like how community activist work is centered on participatory action research, for example… and I was wondering why this language focuses more on a separate user from designer, when it could potentially transform that relationship such that the end users are fully invested and involved in the design. I wonder what others think…

What I’m Thinking Behind This

Getting deep understanding of others seems like the work of ethnography and not usually product design. I imagine some of the ways of deeply understanding others look like participant observation, or doing loads of interviews… or even better, and what I’m reaching for here, is not to “other” but to actually involve the “other” as part of the “us” developing the product or service or whatever. So if we make a parallel to social research, what I’m reaching for here is participatory product design instead of participatory action research.

And I’m thinking particularly of the example of Virtually Connecting and why I think it works better than a million robots for bringing virtual folks into a conference. I don’t know what the heck motivates the people making those robots, but I know they have a long way to go to meet the needs of virtuals. Because it looks to me like they imagined a solution to a need they imagined and now they’re asking folks to test it and iterating from there. What Indie already describes as “too late” in the design process. I think the reason Virtually Connecting worked well FROM THE GET GO is that the people designing it know EXACTLY how it feels to be virtual, and we designed it FOR OURSELVES. And as we have more people joining the team, they, too, bring in their personal understanding of being virtual and we work together to make it work for more and more people who are virtual who may be different from how any one of us experiences it.

And so here I am, thinking of also the course I teach. Of how my students learn about human-centered design with my colleagues for the first half of the course, then they develop educational games with me. And you know what, the best games are the ones they develop FOR STUDENTS like themselves, rather than whatever limited amount of empathy-building research they do with others. Even one of the best games we have this semester relating to mental illness? I know how Depression Quest is excellent because its designer is someone who has experienced depression.

Think about this. Think about if you want to gain empathy and develop products about Muslim or Black people in America. Would it be best to immerse yourself in their lives, remaining your own self? How far would you go towards understanding them? Or would it actually make sense to involve Muslim or Black people in your product development from day zero? I’d say participatory product/service design beats empathetic design any day.

Going Further

What if STUDENTS designed their virtual learning spaces to replace the LMS?

What if CHILDREN could design their own play areas? Gosh, they would design them so much more creatively than we ever could. Just watch any child play with some open-ended type of material and how they will reuse straws to make wands and bottles to make buildings and any infinite number of things.

What if WOMEN were the main decision-makers of how their healthcare would occur, especially reproductive healthcare? (inspired by part of this video of Ruha Benjamin’s keynote in Cairo in April)

What if communities that produce radicalized individuals were involved in the process of eradicating it, because these are their own children whom they lose to radicalization?

What if former drug addicts were designing the programs for fighting against drugs (maybe they are, I don’t know).


Participatory, not “inclusive” or “empathetic” design. That’s where I think it’s at… 

I realize that the end user may not always have the technical skill to do this on their own, hence the participatory aspect. Thoughts? Does this already exist?

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