Empathy is a stepping stone to a more important place: understanding

Understanding is what designers should be striving for as the backdrop for products.

Editor’s note: this post originally published on Medium; this lightly edited version is republished here with permission.

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About 10 years ago, I worked on a project for a new system for people with diabetes. We talked with many people who had diabetes or who helped educate diabetics. I even wore an insulin pump around for several days. In short, we were building up subject matter knowledge and empathy for the people we were designing for. During this user research phase, many of us (myself included) started to have actual nightmares that we had diabetes. I remember once looking at my toes, wondering if the tingling I was feeling was the onset of diabetes. (It wasn’t — probably just my foot was asleep.) We’d empathized to the point where we really identified with diabetics and their problems, which are considerable. We had so much empathy for them, in fact, that for several weeks, we couldn’t solve the problem. It seemed intractable, given what we knew about the condition and the state of technology at the time.

It wasn’t until we were able to step away from the diabetics’ perspective and become less empathetic that we were able to come up with a product concept. We needed distance — a psychic removal — in order to really assess the problem and take action to change it. In other words, we had to act like designers, which meant we had to be more objective, to sit outside and to the left of the problem space. As this experience taught me, too much empathy can be as crippling as too little.

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Design’s return to artisan, at scale

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Matt Nish-Lapidus on design's circular evolution, and designing in the post-Industrial era.

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In this week’s Radar Podcast episode, Jon Follett, editor of Designing for Emerging Technologies, chats with Matt Nish-Lapidus, partner and design director at Normative. Their discussion circles around the evolution of design, characteristics of post-Industrial design, and aesthetic intricacies of designing in networked systems. Also note, Nish-Lapidus will present a free webcast on these topics March 24, 2015.

Post-Industrial design relationships

Nish-Lapidus shares an interesting take on design evolution, from pre-Industrial to post-Industrial times, through the lens of eyeglasses. He uses eyeglasses as a case study, he says, because they’re a piece of technology that’s been used through a broad span of history, longer than many of the things we still use today. Nish-Lapidus walks us through the pre-Industrial era — so, Medieval times through about the 1800s — where a single craftsperson designed one product for a single individual; through the Industrial era, where mass-production took the main stage; to our modern post-Industrial era, where embedded personalization capabilities are bringing design almost full circle, back to a focus on the individual user:

“Once we move into this post-Industrial era, which we’re kind of entering now, the relationship’s starting to shift again, and glasses are a really interesting example. We go from having a single pair of glasses made for a single person, hand-made usually, to a pair of glasses designed and then mass-manufactured for a countless number of people, to having a pair of glasses that expresses a lot of different things. On one hand, you have something like Google Glass, which is still mass-produced, but the glasses actually contain embedded functionality. Then we also have, with the emergence of 3D printing and small-scale manufacturing, a return to a little bit of that artisan, one-to-one relationship, where you could get something that someone’s made just for you.

“These post-Industrial objects are more of an expression of the networked world in which we now live. We [again] have a way of building relationships with individual crafts-people. We also have objects that exist in the network themselves, as a physical instantiation of the networked environment that we live in.”

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What the IoT can learn from the health care industry

Federated authentication and authorization could provide security solutions for the Internet of Things.

Adrian Gropper co-authored this post.

Nyckel_erik_forsberg_FlickrAfter a short period of excitement and rosy prospects in the movement we’ve come to call the Internet of Things (IoT), designers are coming to realize that it will survive or implode around the twin issues of security and user control: a few electrical failures could scare people away for decades, while a nagging sense that someone is exploiting our data without our consent could sour our enthusiasm. Early indicators already point to a heightened level of scrutiny — Senator Ed Markey’s office, for example, recently put the automobile industry under the microscope for computer and network security.

In this context, what can the IoT draw from well-established technologies in federated trust? Federated trust in technologies as diverse as the Kerberos and SAML has allowed large groups of users to collaborate securely, never having to share passwords with people they don’t trust. OpenID was probably the first truly mass-market application of federated trust.

OpenID and OAuth, which have proven their value on the Web, have an equally vital role in the exchange of data in health care. This task — often cast as the interoperability of electronic health records — can reasonably be described as the primary challenge facing the health care industry today, at least in the IT space. Reformers across the health care industry (and even Congress) have pressured the federal government to make data exchange the top priority, and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology has declared it the centerpiece of upcoming regulations. Read more…

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Worship maintainers

The future is maintenance: build for the inevitable.

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Technology has had a cult of newness for centuries. We hail innovators, cheer change, and fend off critics who might think new and change are coming too fast. Unfortunately, while that drives the cycle of creation, it also creates biases that damage what we create, reducing the benefits and increasing the costs.

Formerly new things rapidly become ordinary “plumbing,” while maintenance becomes a cost center, something to complain about. “Green fields” and startups look ever more attractive because they offer opportunities to start fresh, with minimal connections to past technology decisions.

The problem, though, is that most of these new things — the ones that succeed enough to stay around — have a long maintenance cycle ahead of them. As Axel Rauschmayer put it:

“People who maintain stuff are the unsung heroes of software development.”

In a different context, Steve Hendricks of Historic Doors pointed out that:

“Low maintenance is the holy grail of our culture. We’ve gone so far that we’re willing to throw things away rather than fix them.”

That gets especially expensive. Heaping praise on the creators of new things while trying to minimize the costs of the maintainers is a recipe for disaster over the long term.
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Signals from the O’Reilly Software Architecture Conference 2015

From careers to culture to code, here are key insights from the O'Reilly Software Architecture Conference 2015.

Experts from across the software architecture world came together in Boston for the O’Reilly Software Architecture Conference 2015. Below we’ve assembled notable keynotes, interviews, and insights from the event.

Software architects: post-“post-useful”

The old notion of a software architect being a non-coding, post-useful deep thinker is giving way to something far more interesting, says Neal Ford, software architect and meme wrangler at ThoughtWorks. “Architecture has become much more interesting now because it’s become more encompassing … it’s trying to solve real problems rather than play with abstractions.”

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The magic design sauce: curiosity and serendipity

Khoi Vinh on "How They Got There," the cards interaction model, and designers as founders.

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I recently sat down with Khoi Vinh, vice president of user experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Vinh was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), design director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. Our conversation included a discussion of career paths; the much talked about new interaction model, cards; and advice for design entrepreneurs.

Curiosity serves designers well

Vinh and I discussed the ever-evolving role of designers. He recently self-published How They Got There, a book of interviews with interaction designers who describe their career paths and offer advice and insight. Vinh explained:

How They Got There is kind of like the book I wish I could have read when I was just starting out in my career. The central thesis is that very few careers are truly planned out, A to B, to C, to Z, and it’s usually a lot of stuff that just happens by circumstance or blind luck, or through someone who knows someone.

“As I became more and more aware of that in my career, I started to find those stories really interesting, really revealing, because they say so much about the character of people who achieve notoriety in their careers; the circumstances that led them to where they are can be fascinating. In a lot of instances, the things that get these people onto these paths are very, very minor events or minor coincidences. … There’s a serendipity, but I think, one thing that comes out when you read these stories is what serves these designers really well is curiosity, a willingness to be available to opportunities, so to speak. They go with the flow. They let one thing turn into another through their ability to acclimate themselves to various situations.

“What’s that old saying from Branch Rickey — “luck is the residue of design”? These careers are somewhat serendipitous, but they are really the result of folks who are very conscientious about making the most of whatever situation they had and working really hard and applying themselves, and looking at the world around them with great curiosity and being really willing to study what it takes to get to the next level.”

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