A discussion of empathy in engineering:
Erin Cech at Rice University agrees that empathy is essential and names our current culture in engineering a ‘culture of disengagement,’ one in which engineers focus almost exclusively on technical details with little or no attention to empathy and moral issues. Cech’s recently published results show that engineering students’ level of empathy decreased over the four years of their engineering education. Yikes. Not only are we attracting students with lower empathy to begin with but they become less empathizing over the years of their engineering education.
Why is empathy essential in engineering? Engineers design and build products, yes, but these products are for people! To design effective products and processes engineers must understand the people who will use them.
For all of the focus on technology, on building things faster, more efficiently, it’s all for naught if it doesn’t serve the user’s needs. If we’re not solving someone’s problem, then what’s the point?
Without my intent, empathy tends to be a recurring theme for me here. I love this:
In the UX field we talk about a lot of things. Tools, processes, research, design, etc. But it’s easy to forget that a lot of those things are supposed to be ways of finding, feeling, and fixing friction and pain points of the people you’re trying to serve. Recognizing moments when you feel as others do are good reminders that all the work we do – no matter what our specialties, strengths, or backgrounds might be – has a common throughline: Empathy.
I do very firmly believe that taking care of your client’s experience, anticipating and fixing their pain points, is the key to success. And the same goes for your staff – take care of your people. The rest will follow naturally.
I have a client that we have favored highly over the past few weeks – often at the expense of other clients, or at the expense of my development staff’s sanity. After riding out a wave of unforeseen emergencies, we are now transitioning into a regular maintenance schedule.
It’s difficult, at times, to transition clients to new expectations while still keeping them happy. We generally release to production weekly for our web maintenance clients – but for some people, that just seems too infrequent. On their side, they are not accustomed to planning that far in advance. Or a low priority item suddenly becomes urgent because of the time spent waiting in the backlog.
Therefore, we live in a reactionary state to their lack of planning.
Transitional times like this, I try to focus on my empathy – what is the client feeling now? Why aren’t they thinking ahead? Have they ever done this sort of thing before? What pressures are they feeling, and how can I help them feel more in control?
There is certainly a balance – how much I’m willing to give, how much I need to enforce the rules. And certainly, the more precedent I set of disregarding our process, the more difficult it is to enforce process. In the end, an open mind and an open line of communication, laced with a heavy dose of empathy and understanding, tends to do the trick.
An excellent point:
When you stand and petulantly demand some course of action without regard for the bigger picture, you immediately place yourself into a tiny little box. This person doesn’t understand the full scope of what he is asking, so I can disregard this particular request. Sure, you might know what you are talking about (might even be right in absolution), but the fact that you present your case in isolation makes it less compelling to the person you are trying to influence.
Instead of just taking the free ice cream, try a simple acknowledgment of the associated costs. By placing your request in context, you do a couple of things. First, you demonstrate that you are informed, which lends your position more weight. Second, you highlight that you understand the other person’s position, which helps build rapport. And finally, you open up a conversation about costs and tradeoffs, which is typically the core of the problem in the first place.
What are you demanding from others without regard to what it will cost them? Is that why you’re not getting results?