Empathy in Design

One of the most valuable assets that a designer can have is empathy. To be able to design effectively, a designer must have the ability to understand another person’s point of view and empathize with it.

Inclusive design is a methodology to design products that are accessible to the widest audience possible. Rather than designing for a narrow definition of “normal” capabilities, inclusive design ensures that designers consider all levels of capability throughout the design process. The reality of the world is that there is no standard person, and every person’s experiences and capabilities are unique. These differences shouldn’t mean that a person is less able to access the internet or any product than anyone else. Think about it: should a person who’s visually impaired be unable to watch movies or read books? Inclusive design is important, because it allows everyone to use and enjoy designed products and accounts for the diversity inherent in life on Earth. 

One of the most important aspects of inclusive design is making sure that the designer can fully empathize with different experiences and points of view. In order to build empathy, we engaged in several empathy exercises during class. We got into groups and went through some of the empathy prompts. These ranged from things like trying to navigate a webpage without using a mouse to trying on someone else’s glasses. 

One of the exercises we spent a lot of time on was trying to navigate a webpage without using a mouse. We tried to look at information on a specific item on Ebay, but found it difficult to get to the item using the tab button when there were so many elements on the page. Eventually, it became frustrating to tab all over the page, and we ended up missing the item when it finally landed on it. I had never realized how annoying it would be to navigate anything on a computer like that. I feel like if it was that time-consuming and tedious to use a computer, I probably just wouldn’t use one at all. It reminded me of when my boyfriend broke his arm while we were on vacation. Even though it was just his arm, there were a lot of activities that he either couldn’t do or didn’t want to do because it would be too cumbersome or painful.

We tried a few vision-related exercises as well. Since I have pretty terrible vision myself, these activities were a little more relatable. The first one we tried was experiencing websites using the No Coffee filters, which allowed us to see websites as a person with different types of color blindness. Another vision-related exercise we tried was having someone wear someone else’s glasses. I have pretty bad myopia, and I’ve been told before that wearing my glasses makes people feel like they’re going to be sick. I doubt it gives a person a real idea of what it’s like to have bad eyesight; I think it’s equivalent to putting weird magnifying lenses up close to your eyes. A better comparison would probably be to make everything extremely blurry. 

I’m so used to wearing glasses that it doesn’t really seem that remarkable to me, but the times when I don’t have my glasses can be really aggravating. One time when I was a kid, one of the screws that kept my glasses together fell out and got lost somewhere in the grass. I was on a field trip at the time, I basically couldn’t see for a few hours until someone found a small enough screw to replace the lost one. Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I knock my glasses off the bedside table and can’t find them because I can’t see anything. Honestly, it’s sort of shocking to me that there are people who can see in fine detail when they’re in the shower or swimming. I can’t imagine anyone not living with bad eyesight on a daily basis.

Finally, we had to enable some accessibility settings on our phone to see what it was like to have to use them. I decided to turn on the VoiceOver feature on my iPhone, which reads items on the screen out loud. The gestures and haptic feedback on a phone with VoiceOver turned on are completely different, which the phone makes sure to warn you about before you are able to enable it. A single tap is required to tell VoiceOver what to read on the screen, so a double tap is required to activate any item. When typing with the keyboard, the user has to single tap on a key for VoiceOver to read it and then double tap to actually have it type. Scrolling requires three fingers instead of one. Almost every action is accompanied by some kind of vibration so that the user gets feedback in response to their gestures. It was a very different experience to using an iPhone without VoiceOver enabled.

Before we did the exercises, I’d considered myself somewhat educated on the topic of accessibility, because I’ve had to fix websites for accessibility as part of my job before. However, going through all of them made me realize that there’s still a lot about it that I don’t know. I guess the most important thing is to be aware that I’m probably always going to have something to learn about when it comes to creating inclusive designs, and that I can’t become complacent and assume I understand everything just because I’ve read a few articles about it before. Going through the empathy exercises helped me understand a little of what it’s like to have different capabilities, but I think it’s still difficult to understand in the same way as someone who experiences these things on a day-to-day basis.

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