The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:
- Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
- Itamar Medeiros—Senior User Experience Designer at Autodesk
- Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); coauthor of Global UX; UXmatters columnist
- Bas Raijmakers—Cofounder and Creative Director at STBY; reader at Design Academy Eindhoven
- Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd; coauthor of Global UX
- Geke van Dijk—Cofounder and Strategy Director at STBY
- Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd
Q: What activities can we practice in order to get better at empathy?—from a UXmatters reader
Jordan has a unique perspective on empathy. “I grew up with Asperger’s Syndrome, which, in my case, led to many awkward situations. I had speech impediments and ticks and didn’t understand why people did the things they did. Simple interactions with groups were extremely stressful. Over the years, I’ve gotten help through speech therapy and psychoanalysis, but I still have trouble understanding people. When I was young, there were dozens of tricks I used to help develop my sense of empathy. The overarching strategy for me was to develop an interest in what motivates others and, especially, what motivates their responses. The most effective techniques I used to develop empathy were and still are as follows:
- drama—When I was growing up, the most effective way for me to learn what other people might be thinking was to take on the persona of another person. Drama class gave me the opportunity to study different acting techniques. To get a good grade in drama class, students needed to develop a deep sense of empathy for a character they were taking on. If you have trouble with empathy, think about taking a drama class or doing improv or comedy. It’s great for learning to speak with another person’s voice and learning what various reactions mean.
- music—I’ve always used music in the same way that drug-addicts use drugs—to change my mood or outlook. How music with the most esoteric meaning can cause someone to feel happier is still a mystery to me. The interesting thing about music is that a single song can hold a different meaning for everyone who listens to it. Over a period of about two years, I became very interested in listening to music with the intent of figuring out what an artist meant when he wrote a song, then researching comments about the song online to learn how others interpreted it. This gave me some key insights into human understanding and a good foundation for understanding what stimuli are most effective for eliciting desired responses.
- talking aloud—I played a lot of different sports growing up because they tended to be less complicated from a social-interaction standpoint. There were rules, objectives, positions, and uniforms to take the awkwardness out of being part of a group. All I had to do was pay attention to what was going on around me and help achieve the team’s goals. I was good at sports, which may be why my teammates tended to tolerate my presence outside the games themselves. When not engaged in sports, I tended to lose myself in random thoughts about other things. I’d frequently revisit confusing social situations internally and play out different variations of them in my mind. At such times, it appeared that I was talking to myself. I’ve since learned to think in this manner without talking aloud or looking like I’m a crazy person. This technique has helped me to expect the unexpected, and I’ve realized that, for empathy to be really effective, you need to approach every situation expecting to learn something new.
- curiosity and asking questions—As I said earlier, my overarching strategy was to develop a legitimate interest in what motivates others. Over time, starting when I was still in high school, I developed a curiosity that has stayed with me. Even in high school, I still struggled with certain social situations, but I had found something that motivated me to understand more about people. My first calculus class was in grade 9, and it introduced me to the field of probability. I believed probability could shed light on what was normal. If it were possible to determine the most likely reactions to a stimulus, it would be possible to determine which reactions are most common—and hence, which are normal. This idea gave rise to social experimentation in which I essentially conducted mini-ethnographic studies to gather real data on how my cohorts reacted to different social stimuli. The biggest insight that I got from doing this was that people are notoriously bad at putting motivating emotions into words. In fact, it became apparent that I needed to test my theories in actual situations rather than merely deriving insights from data. Learn to ask why people do the things they do. You’ll find that the same things motivate most people. But keep your mind open to learning new things. Although there are probable reactions, there are also anomalies. Understanding the anomalies is what I find interesting now.”