Industrial design and other forms of empathy

While working on some code this morning, I played some videos of Jonathan Ive talking about Apple’s design process (h/t vowe) and it got me thinking about how certain recent experiences have been interconnected. I thought it might be interesting to share these thoughts regarding:

1. Guiding my kids through disputes
2. Disengaging from Twitter
3. Domino SSL concerns

As father to a 5 year old and a 3 year old, one of my most important missions is to ensure my kids have empathy. We’ve had many long conversations about imagining how other people feel and how you might feel in their situation, especially when in conflict. This has tremendous value in keeping a peaceful and trusting household, as we can share very complex concerns with only a few words. We can instantly reset volatile situations by saying something like “Meta, I’m feeling ignored” or “Axiom, how would you feel if…” Watching this sense develop in them is amazing, especially as they start achieving self-empathy, and demand better relationships with their friends.

How does this relate to the Apple design process? Good design is all about having empathy for your users; asking yourself “how will someone feel when they experience this and how can we make that feeling ever more enjoyable?” When you listen to Ive talk about his first experience with a Mac, he points out that bad design makes users feel inadequate to the device. It’s a marvelous insight that requires deep empathy with both his past self and his future customers. When Ive talks about specific designs, he goes into detail about unseen parts of devices that might only be experienced on a subconscious level and that nevertheless are hugely important.

In stark contrast, we have Twitter. I started using Twitter again at MWLUG, hopeful that my experience might be different from last time. Eventually, my experience became the same as before: tweets are a medium utterly lacking in empathy, because you can’t express the subtleties and nuances of human emotion in 140 characters. It’s fine for the sharing of *information* but it’s horrendous for the sharing of *meaning*. Conversations devolve into snark because the medium itself doesn’t allow for explanation and reasoning, only conclusions. In some ways, it’s the perfect mechanism for viciousness. And it’s brilliant at erasing self-empathy, too, as people internalize every tweet as if they were the subject of whatever was said.

So where does Domino SSL fit into all this? In the delicate realm of corporate communication, empathy remains a rare and precious quality. Not surprisingly, Apple is very good at empathy in their communications. IBM, not so much. While people have asked for years for an update to the SSL stack on Domino, recent changes in certificate vendor policies have brought urgency to the matter and many people have begged, pleaded, demanded and cajoled IBM for a reply. The outcome has been almost complete silence for two months, with only a single sentence response from the very-brilliant-but-also-very-non-executive Dave Kern (one that I note fits quite comfortably into a tweet,) that IBM is formulating it’s reply. And this simply reflects that IBM, as an organization, lacks the practice of looking at the experience from the perspective of their customers and partners. If they did, they would see that the experience is fear that since IBM doesn’t care enough about customers and partners to provide a plan of action, they might not care enough to take action either.

None of this is to claim that I practice perfect empathy either. I have a long history of unempathetic communication, but since becoming a father and an entrepreneur, I’m working hard to change that.

Do you practice empathy in your relationships?

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4 comments on “Industrial design and other forms of empathy
  1. Eoin Meaney says:

    Hi Nathan, I like the way you include a link to your old posts – owning your past is a good thing. On the subject, if I may, I have a vague recollection of a public falling out between yourself and Erik Brooks years and years back – or is that a mangled memory? If I have it right (at least more or less) it looks like you’ve made progress in the last few years on the empathy front.

    I ride into work and find I get into shouting matches with motorists much less these days compared to years past. Growing older isn’t all bad : )

  2. thentf says:

    Yes, Erik and I worked together many years ago and it did not end amicably. However, I will happily confess that he’s a world-class engineer and for that reason we continue to interact from time to time in the Notes/Domino community.

Take the red pill.

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