A foundation of empathy: The O’Reilly Radar Podcast

Putting ourselves in the shoes of the user is key to building better systems and services.

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In this podcast episode, Tim O’Reilly talks about building systems and services for people, keeping a close eye on the end user’s experience to build better, more efficient systems that actually work for the people using them. Highlighting a quote from Jeff Sussna, O’Reilly makes a deeper connection between development and the ultimate purpose for building systems and services — user experience:

“[Jeff Sussna says in his blog post Empathy: The Essence of DevOps]: ‘It’s not about making developers and sysadmins report to the same VP. It’s not about automating all your configuration procedures. It’s not about tipping up a Jenkins server, or running your applications in the cloud, or releasing your code on Github. It’s not even about letting your developers deploy their code to a PaaS. The true essence of DevOps is empathy.’

“Understanding the other people that you work with and how you’re going to work together more effectively. That word ’empathy’ struck me and it made me connect the world of DevOps with the world of user experience design.”

O’Reilly offers an example from government services, looking at the user experience problems in food stamp distribution: a large number of people were finding themselves at the grocery store cash register at midnight (once a month when the cards are filled) only to discover their cards didn’t work. The developers who ultimately solved this problem discovered the issue traced back to unintelligible letters that were sent to card holders notifying them of a problem. Looking at the situation through the lens of user experience, the developers replaced the letters with a simple text message, essentially saying that there’s a problem with your benefits; call the office. “This simple human intervention,” O’Reilly explains, “reduced churn in the system by 40%. But it was just putting themselves in the shoes of the user.”

Quoting the mission statement Jennifer Pahlka penned for Code for America — “Government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century if we make it so” — O’Reilly notes that this connection between DevOps, empathy, and user experience is widely applicable to anyone building services today — we’re building services of people for people:

“You think about the Uber driver; they’re part of the system. You think about the people who are basically inside the applications — like you — that are running in the Cloud. You think about crowdsourcing, all these other elements of 21st century technology where people are part of the system.

“But then you have to say we ultimately must be doing this for people. It’s so easy to get caught up in this idea that we’re going to measure and monitor and we’re going to potentially even manipulate — all the ideas of lean startup and growth hacking. It’s super important that we don’t just think: this is a way to grow our business, to get better results. It is a way to actually serve our audience, serve our customers. That’s why that word empathy is so much at the heart of what we should all being doing as we bring 21st century technology to work for people.”

In the second segment of this episode, Mikey Dickerson, administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer, shares a real-life experience with this concept of empathy and the connection between DevOps and user experience in the story of his journey from working for Google to working in the West Wing. The experience became a sort of calling for Dickerson to work on real-world issues, solving problems for real people — identity theft of kids in foster care; food stamp distribution hangups; and the unreliable, expensive process of immigration, to name a few. “These problems are fixable,” he says. “These problems are important, but they require you to choose to work on them.”

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