Designing for empathy, not just usability

(Fair warning, this post is opinion and anecdotal, not empirical)

Call me a softie, call me a stark raving empath, tell me I’m a social ‘scientist’ as though that’s a bad thing; but I firmly believe that what we design should make people feel confident. At the very least, it shouldn’t make a dent on their sense of agency when they encounter a service, form, website or product.

Bus shelter poster, Lewisham Way, London

(Bus shelter poster, Lewisham Way, London)

Our users have their own contexts, their own stories that contribute to the mindset they have when they approach a product. We should account for this context, and indeed, actively seek information on this context when we meet our users.

In particular, when designing government transactions (but it could be applied to any form of transaction), we need to have a level of awareness of  the journey people have been through before they get to the transaction itself. What does that kind of awareness look like? As a user researcher, I get to be in the position of informally chatting to people about their context before we jump into playing with a product. Here’s what I’m keen to know about a user before I launch into a usability test or another activity:

Have they been given the runaround by the bricks and mortar version of the service?

We’ve all been there before, being passed from pillar to post, department to department to get a simple task done. If the user has gone through a long process offline just to get to the online process, the user could be nearing the end of their tether. Try to create an online experience that is sympathetic to the journey the user may have been through just to get to the website. Also consider this if your website’s information architecture doesn’t immediately elevate the transaction to a place where the users can easily find it.
Where have they been informed about this process? Friends and family? Media?

If your transaction is a one off transaction – such as a transaction to activate a payment, your users may have been informed by others who have gone ahead of them. In some research I carried out on activating state pension payments – a one off transaction, our users told us they found out about the process from their friends who had reached pension age before them. Not everyone googles for the information they need. Often asking a user with no prior experience of a certain transaction what they expect will happen in the process can pay dividends if you’re trying to reimagine the process.

Is there a lot riding on the transaction?  Could there be potential financial or legal implications from the transaction?

If your users are trying to complete some life admin in an area that they’re not well versed in (tax returns spring immediately to mind), they could be under added pressure for fear of completing the form incorrectly. Clearly explaining concepts and consequences clearly can do a lot to allay fears. Stick to one concept or question at a time.
Does the transaction have a reputation of being a ‘grudge transaction’?

If there’s an element of the transaction that users have to carry out on a regular or semi-regular basis, what is their feeling of it based on past experience? One user I recently worked with kept mentioning an ID they’d been assigned to carry out government transactions as the ‘nightmare number’ because she had encountered so much trouble in using the ID to get into any transactions. This highlights the importance of ensuring that any logins we place in front of a transaction are easy enough to sign up for, activate and re-use when the time comes. If your users are in a situation where they need to have an ID but they only use the ID maybe once or twice a year at best, ask them how they store that information and whether retrieving that information adds another layer of stress to completing the transaction.

What do they fear will happen if they make an error in the transaction?

It’s often fear of the worst case scenario that makes users unnecessarily err on the side of caution and omit rather than submit salient information that could help them out. Help out your user with clear, concise information at known points of confusion. If users are faced with a situation where they cannot complete the transaction because the options don’t fit their circumstances, then provide details for offline support.

 

I’m really keen to hear what you find important to ask users as contextual questions. I’d also like to know how you factor empathy into designing and iterating your products.

Coffee and wifi: beyond the research project

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged anything related to Coffee and Wifi; the research project that formed my MA Digital Sociology dissertation.

Coffee and Wifi was a success and I enjoyed every second of research and writing that went into it.  The dissertation went on to receive a Distinction and I graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with an MA in Digital Sociology late last year. Coffee and Wifi is now available to read online (if reading dissertations is your kind of thing).

After presenting my research at the EPIC 2013 colloquium, I started working at the Government Digital Service as a user researcher on the GOV.UK website. It was an absolute privilege to be able to help make Britain’s online public services better by meeting with users to find out what they needed from their government. However, all good things (read: my UK visa) must come to an end and I had to leave the country and a job and colleagues that I adore.

Rather than leaping straight into another job straight away, I’m currently in North America, travelling around and meeting others in the user research community.

Why? Well, this happened a few weeks ago:

Tweet

The response was overwhelming and humbling and I didn’t want to squander the opportunities that have arisen from one single tweet. I had some time up my sleeve to meet some of the people who have been kind enough to reach out to me via Twitter. I’m keen to see how people are approaching user research in different locations and different industries.

So I’m slightly changing the tack of this blog to reflect on user research as I travel and meet with the user research community across continents.

I also hope to use this blog to talk a little bit more about:

  • the user research industry – what are we doing? how can we communicate what we do better? I’m slowly on the lookout for my next research gig and I’m looking to share some of the joys and frustrations of that journey.
  • experience design – I think travelling and being new to so many cities in the next few weeks will give me a great opportunity to look at services and systems I encounter along the way and almost conduct some mini field observations on them.
  • empathic design – I started a conversation and a train of thought on empathic design just before I left GDS, I would like to explore that a bit further.
  • methodology – I’m a methodology geek. I’m keen to create some discussions around how we research and the methods we deploy.

I’m pretty excited for what’s to come and would love your comments and feedback along the way!

 

Presenting at EPIC Doctoral and Masters Colloquium

This year, I’ve been incredibly lucky to take part in EPIC 2013 – the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference in London – both in co-ordinating the student volunteers and taking part in the Doctoral and Masters Colloquium.

It was a great experience to present my research to my peers and some senior practitioners in the EPIC community.

Because I was the only one in my group who had completed a project, my questions were different and the feedback couldn’t be plowed back into my assessable work. However, I showed my research in order to gain experience in preparing and presenting my work in an academic setting.

Here’s what I learnt:

  • 20 minutes of presenting research and an additional 20 minutes of questions and discussions sounds daunting. It isn’t. Time flies and the questions and suggestions are insightful and supportive.
  • Ethnographers and their research projects are truly fascinating. Over the course of the day, I was transported to simulations of closed quarters for astronauts, the health care system in rural USA, a hectic office environment in Mumbai and, middle class family life in Bangalore. Everyone’s research had a story to tell and lessons to learn for my own practice.
  • Tiny research can be mighty research. It wasn’t an environment where people compared their research to others, but I couldn’t help but notice that my research was tiny in scale to others. I only spent ten days across six weeks in the field and had a month to gather additional data and write up my findings. That was a by-product of the small time frame, self-funding and a relatively small output required to complete my dissertation and final project. The feedback I received was that this research could be expanded and scaled up to include more fields and more exploration of the communities that form around cafes both in the physical and digital spaces.
  • The research is far richer and insightful than the 12,000 words and 20 minutes it was squeezed into. The questions I received generated so many more angles and paths to follow up on. Should I choose to carry on researching digital device use in cafes (either professionally, academically or on the side), I have so many more ideas to follow up. How is Twitter used by customers to reinforce the sense of community and neighbourhood? How much of a role does furniture and non-digital objects have in influencing digital device use in cafes? Why do cafe owners design the space to encourage or discourage digital device use? Are we becoming better at communicating and storytelling in cafes because of – shock horror – our digital devices?

Perhaps this is what the blog can turn into now that the project is over – an exploration of those ideas and questions.

Once the project has been marked, I’ll be posting the dissertation online for you to download and read. I would be interested to hear your feedback.

Find out more:

Twitter ethnography and technical challenges

The main technical component of my research was going to be writing a piece of code in Python that could be executed to scrape tweets mentioning the cafe I was researching in over the course of the month.

Then Twitter changed its API and its authorisation system. And they were changes that meant there would be fundamental changes to coding in order to make it work. You can read more about the changes on Twitter’s developer blog along with some FAQs about the API changes. The API and authorisation changes meant that I would have to sign up to Twitter as a developer (instead of using my log in details) and make changes to my Python code to reflect this.

Because the research project was only three months long, with one month of that dedicated to analysing and writing my findings, I wanted to find another solution that would work but that could have the technical elements easily explained.

Around the time that Twitter made its API changes, another scraping-related website made significant changes. ScraperWiki was previously a website with libraries of code contributed by users wanting to scrape digital content. But Scraperwiki noticed that a lot of their users were writing code specifically to scrape Twitter for search terms, so they built a bespoke web tool to do that and cumulate tweets for the user in either online or downloadable spreadsheets. The solution was found. I made contact with ScraperWiki’s product manager to make sure it worked how I thought it did, so I could write it up in my technical specifications.

It’s not as technical a solution as I would like to have had. I would love to have written a piece of code on my own and had it work. But the end result was more important – I needed data to support my theory of Twitter’s role in independent cafes – and that’s how I achieved it.

Of fieldwork and formulating ideas.

It’s  been a while since the last update of coffee and wifi (yes, two months!). In that time, a lot has happened, and probably a lot of things that didn’t necessarily warrant being blogged about in a warts and all fashion.

So here’s the bullet-point update to get you up to speed with how the project has progressed.

  • I read. And read. And read. There is so much literature about cafe ethnographies (Habermas, Laurier, Wakeford) to get through, then there is literature about actor-network theory (Latour) to read closely and then digest. To cap it all off, there is a massive chunk of reading around methodology (Hine, Murthy) to read and think about to shape my ethnographic approach.
  • I devised my methodology. It’s a multi-modal ethnography comprising observations, interviews and Twitter scraping. There were a few other things I prototyped that won’t make it into the finished work.
  • I spent a lot of time in Manchester. My field is in Manchester, so it was excellent in that I could easily divide the field from the rest of my life in London. The five-hour bus commute each way wasn’t so excellent. I got a lot of reading done.
  • I observed and interviewed. I gained a lot from being in the field – in fact it was my favourite part of the project so far. Apart from the obvious joys of doing legitimate research in a cafe, I learnt a lot about being a participant-observer (this is one of the key discussions on the ethical side of doing ethnography). People in the field were incredibly supportive, generous and receptive. They had a lot to say and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you in the coming weeks.
  • I thought. Even when I’m not in the field and when I’m not reading and not interviewing, I am chewing over what I’ve observed or heard or read. This means eureka moments in the shower, on the tube and in the office. There are many benefits of studying (sociology in particular, but I’m sure it’s the same for other disciplines), but one of the best benefits is being able to slowly consider a concept and build on it over time.
  • I almost gave up coffee. Yes. There was one horrible Friday in Manchester where I seriously entertained the thought of giving up coffee for a while once the project came to an end. Thankfully, I reconsidered. But I will be taking it easy on the coffee front come September.

What now? It’s time to start analysing and writing. More on that in the coming weeks.

Digital Sociology and Startups – why? how?

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go to Silicon Milkroundabout 5.0 in Shoreditch. It was one of those days when you realise it’s special to live in London because there are opportunities right on your doorstep.

Firstly, it was good to gain insights into startup culture. In my background, I’ve not really had much to do with startups. It’s been more a lack of opportunity than a lack of willingness. I met a lot of people who are just getting on and running with their ideas. I enjoyed their willingness to have a chat about what they’re doing. In short startups have a lot of passionate people working really hard, but having lots of fun and enjoying it (from what I could see).

However, it’s hard to gain positive attention from startups if your skills don’t necessarily fit the bill. I felt as though I was evangelising Digital Sociology as well as looking for career opportunities.

My favourite reaction? “Digital Sociology? That’s a thing?”

My least favourite reaction? *eyes glazed*

Situations like that aren’t necessarily the best to explain exactly how digital sociologists can be useful to startups.  Digital Sociology has only been running for two years at Goldsmiths, so yes, it’s a thing but a very new thing.

To help explain what we’re about here are a few bullet points to outline some of the skills digital sociologists can bring to the startup (ping pong) table:

  • We bring an analytical view at how your products could impact customers/users/clients. We’ve completed a module about Sociology into Design which looks at communicating sociological research into design environments. I’m currently in my last week of an internship at a design research firm.
  • We are observant. And we’re good at noticing interesting issues or insights in user groups that could be relevant to your product.
  • We know big data (both the creation and uses of it) and we know empathy. We’re trained in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies sand we have spent time getting our hands dirty, testing them out, making data visualisations, personas, experience models and lots of other cool things to communicate our research.
  • We’ve spent days, nights, weekends, holidays learning to code and putting it in practice. We’ve had experience using HTML, CSS, JS, MySQL, PHP, Python and Unix. For most of us, our weapon of choice is Python so we can scrape Twitter and other online media for insights.
  • We’ve learnt about innovation and startup culture in an Innovation Case Studies module.

Where would I see the fit? Somewhere in your design or R&D team or perhaps in business/project analyst roles. Although we have the knowledge of coding to hold conversations with developers and coders, we would tend to use those languages for research and communication purposes (but by no means should you dismiss a digital sociologist with real coding chops).

I hope that clarifies how digital sociologists and startups could play nicely together. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more, or carry you can also carry on the conversation in the comments section.

The reading list

I’m not sure if anything really prepares you for the sheer relentlessness that a taught Master’s programme brings. There is always something to be read or written or thought about or made. It’s never-ending.

It’s May which means it’s the long stretch of Summer Term: dissertation time. This time of year for our cohort is when we are also finishing up internships and we’re also having our second meeting with our supervisors.

This is when the seriousness of the dissertation hits home and the doubts creep in.

The doubts are temporary yet intense. And in hindsight, somewhat helpful. But nevertheless, there’s a week in the postgraduate calendar which I’m sure has an unspoken understanding of being ‘self-loathing week’. There are lots of questions, lots of doubts, supervisors sometimes (helpfully) play devil’s advocate to ensure you’re really thinking critically about your project.

It inevitably comes around to the point that you’ve just not read enough. The more you read, the more you understand the theory and the methodology surrounding your chosen topic. And even though it’s the last thing you want to do, it’s the best thing you could do (and it’s actually quite enjoyable).

So here’s what’s on my reading list:

Stack of books about ethnography

Reading list – May 2013.

A lot of the books and articles are ethnography based: they either are ethnographies or they’re instructional on how to do ethnography.

In terms of articles, I’ve been reading a lot of Eric Laurier from the University of Edinburgh. He has done many cafe ethnographies in Britain over the past 15 years. His literature reviews do a good job of explaining some of the sociological views of cafes from Latour, Habermas and Goffman.

In addition to reading Laurier’s articles, I’ve been making my through Kitchensan ethnography of restaurant kitchen staff by Gary Allen Fine. So far, I’ve gained some insights into how you could view each cafes or restaurant as an individual habitus (or community, for the non-sociologists).

The bulk of the books on the stack are the how-to books. They will be read in the coming weeks, but they will be immeasurably helpful in planning fieldwork and deciding the finer points of methodology.

It’s all (slowly) coming together.

Actor-Network Theory: why it’s relevant in the cafe

Trying to understand Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory sometime feels as difficult as understanding… Higgs Boson. Explaining Actor-Network Theory to a lay person can feel clumsy and not-so academically accurate. So apologies in advance if this is overly simplistic (or indeed, if it’s overly confusing).

Look around you, can you see your smartphone? I bet it’s within arm’s reach or at least in the same room as you.

Your smartphone was invented by a human. Someone dictated what went where to make it work, they decided what functions it should include.

But then you purchased the smartphone and it started to mould your behaviour, the way you interact with others and how they interact with you. In turn, you’ve added more apps and data to your smartphone to change your actions and influence your living further.

(are you still with me? I hope so.)

My understanding of Actor-Network Theory is that that humans and non-humans (objects, things, concepts) are all ‘actors’ in a ‘network’ where we impact, influence and change one another in equal parts.

And what does this have to do with coffee and wifi?

Actor-Network Theory is just one ‘sociological lens’ we can use to look at the cafe.

I assert that we’re being moulded and shaped by wifi, the location of wifi and the actions we do via wifi. The very fact that wifi is in a cafe shapes the way we interact with others in and out of our immediate vicinity.

Seinfeld on coffee

There has been coffee everywhere this week. We’ve come to the end of UK Coffee Week  which has seen anyone who’s even remotely invested in coffee come out to play. It’s a great reminder of how coffee brings people together.

Across the pond, NPR in the US has spent the week looking at all things coffee as well in their Coffee Week.

NPR reporters explored everything from suspended coffee, the rise of women in the coffee industry, latte art and, the history of coffee.

But my favourite story from Coffee Week is an interview with relative newcomer to coffee, Jerry Seinfeld. He says, ‘You have coffee and for some reason it makes you talk a lot.’

It’s a welcome distraction to all of this serious talk about coffee.

London Coffee Festival 2013

I was lucky enough to go to the London Coffee Festival yesterday evening at the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch.

Lucky, in that I won my ticket thanks to Caffeine magazine, cheers!

And while it was good to geek out over different coffees and brewing methods, it was also interesting that conversation inevitably came around to digital sociology and the coffee and wifi research.

The conversations were mixed with some people thinking big data and mobile devices are a cause for concern, and others just being interested in talking about the subject area. I’m always fascinated to hear more from non-sociologists about their concerns with big data and mobile devices. It usually provides me with another perspective to look at things from.

Only at a coffee festival could come across a stall of someone selling a book extolling the virtues of working from cafes.

Out of Office book

Out of Office by Chris Ward

Chris Ward was at the London Coffee Festival spruiking his book, Out of Office. The book talks about the positives of working  from cafes and lists great books written, websites founded and revolutions commenced all from the humble cafe.

I’m yet to read the book thoroughly but provides a good pictorial, business argument for working from cafes. Definitely something to look into further.

I had a chat to Chris and it’ll be great to follow up with him in the coming months on his ideas about working from cafes.

On a coffee geek note, I managed to complete my Hario V60 pour over kit yesterday. This means the project will be fuelled by lots of lovely homemade, single origin filter coffees.

Hario stand at the London Coffee Festival

Hario stand at the London Coffee Festival – one of many coffee geek out sites.