Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Understanding the Person: Reflections from #lxconf

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Yesterday I stayed up til 1am to attend the first #LXCONF session given by Indi Young, which focused on Designing with Empathy. I enjoyed the session. I had read a couple of articles by Indi beforehand, and my co-teachers teach human-centered design/design think, so some of the ideas were familiar already. But her message was still quite powerful and here are some of my key takeaways from the session. 

Engineers need to work with social scientists

This should not be a surprise, but a lot of what she described doing to understand people is just basically interpretive social science. Social Science that comes from a paradigm that another human being is not truly knowable without actually asking them to interpret their own life. And the problem with a lot of business people and engineers is that they try to understand human beings from the outside, looking at demographic categories and external behaviors, none of which actually probes a person’s intent or purpose. 

Using the term person vs user/student/client/etc makes all the difference 

I didn’t realize how much a change of term made until she did it. She suggested we don’t call a person a user at the very early stages of imagining the “problem space” or we box ourselves into seeing others in very limited ways. This idea triggered a lot of thoughts for me about how much of a difference it makes when I understand my students as people outside of their role as my students. How as a faculty developer, understanding other faculty as individuals as whole persons is important before I start giving them advice or tips. If I understand what their goals are, only then can I support them in achieving their goals. It sounds obvious. But we don’t always do it!

Speaking of which, I think the badge I designed for #lxconf exemplifies this whole person thing, at least in how I myself chose to share several dimensions of my person (not just my professional person) with others. I decided to include a silhouette of a woman carrying a child to hint at my motherhood. I included affiliations other than my institution’s. I included flowers. Because I love flowers, and it was my badge to design dammit. No one ever asked me to design my own badge before and I will take that freedom when I get it!


She shared this article she wrote about describing personas (haven’t read it yet but I know she goes beyond the numbers. I am concerned that she uses “thinking styles” simply because any categorization is limiting BUT she seemed to approach it critically not dogmatically and I want to give this idea a chance and see where it takes me)

On different dimensions of empathy

She mentioned importance of listening and affective vs cognitive empathy. It reminded me of an blogpost I wrote a while ago unpacking dimensions of empathy – before I even knew others did the same. 

Other resources I plan to follow up on from yesterday (from Indi and other participants in the session and on Twitter) 

  • 90 year old designing tech for aging boomers
  • Spurious correlations – a great ice-breaker to use, I think, to highlight how problematic correlations in human research can be
  • I had blogged about participatory design vs empathetic design. There’s an interesting forum discussion on this topic inside #lxconf, but since I also blogged it, Andrei Dacko from Twitter shared an article on involving students in redesigning desk/chair and this inspiring video (watch it).

That’s it for now. There’s still time to register for the #LXCONF at http://lxconf.co 

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the sharing from this conference. I loathe the word “user” too- it’s dehumanizing and makes people sound like test subjects, and often try to use “participant” more in my mix open courses rather than student. I loved that statement in their kit about “If you are not designing for a person, you are designing for no one”

    And I dig Spurious Correlations- I thought I had used it, but especially like that he web version is connected to the data and can be explored (maybe in some combination with Gapminder). I might use it as a creative activity to create the story or an image that represents the correlation.

  2. I see an interesting parallel here between the idea of user and person, being a parallel to the ideas of subject and participant when looking at research, especially medical-based research.

    • Definitely. Had lots of echoes of social research and positivism vs interpretivism/constructivism in the approach to product design as with research designs/methodologies

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