November 20, 2011

Empathy in Design: May Efficient Never Replace Human

Why do humans enjoy architecture? Why do we feel inspired in well executed spaces? Some say good architecture expresses the complexity of humanity. Are we moved that someone took into account our humanity, our complexity, in their work? Is feeling understood itself a source of comfort and inspiration? If so, how can designers bring this same consideration into creating and improving services?

Design’s reliance on empathy has, until recently, been a foreign concept for me. I associated Design with disconnected individuals busy creating the next useless yet beautiful chair or glasses I couldn’t afford. This perspective was rocked by a series of unfortunate (hindsight now says fortunate) recent circumstances.

Two years ago, the combination of a financial crisis, a poor labor market, and dwindling savings found me standing in line at 8am on a weekday in Spanish Harlem waiting to enter a windowless building. The day before, I had found myself researching the different options for someone in my situation: someone struggling to make ends meet yet too proud to tap into his ‘private’ social safety net of willing family and friends. To my surprise, the service best suited for my situation was called ‘public assistance’. In other words, welfare. This word, which had been taboo my whole life, was now my reality. Nothing confirmed this more than being herded into the public services building like cattle and a security guard playing the cowboy role as he yelled and whistled us in. As the queue formed inside, the room’s aesthetic and the overall experience began to weigh on me. Sure, the signage was clear, I was given clear instructions, and I didn’t get lost as I made my way to my case worker’s cubicle. But it became evident that the service I was now using was designed just to process me, not help me in any way.

After my ‘case’ was established and I signed the paperwork, I took the bus home. On the way, I became baffled at how this experience had been so emotionally jarring. Of course, I entered into it with negative perceptions of receiving public assistance, but why did this experience cause so much self doubt and, in a way, hopelessness?

I began to analyze the experience deeper and realized how little my humanity was considered in the design and delivery of this service, from the architectural design and choice of building materials and paint colors, to the lack of privacy and countless confusing documents containing foreign terms with no explanation. In the name of efficiency, my individual needs and circumstances, my being, was removed from the service equation. The system had stripped me of my agency and my faith. These oversights made it clear: if Design is to realize its potential in advancing social good, it must never abandon its reliance on empathy.

As the design community directs more efforts towards service design, may Efficient never replace Human. May person-effectiveness always trump cost-effectiveness. Yes, the right color palette and well-placed, legible signage can help users navigate a service system; but the complex realities that lead many to seek public assistance — and government services in general — must always be understood and accounted for before the Post-It notes start to fly.

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