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Business and Finance

Empathy tech: solving problems through perspective

Caitlin E McDonald
Empathy is a designer's best friend when thinking about which problems to solve

Lurking behind every technical product is a problem; a problem designers are attempting to solve through engineering. This fundamental principle has brought us everything from plastic cups that fit snugly in the water cooler dispenser to the lines of code that automatically sync your flight confirmation email with your Google calendar.

But there’s a meta-problem behind all the challenges which give rise to the objects and widgets adorning our lives: how do designers and engineers know which problems are worth solving?

One strategy is to take a self-reflexive approach: solve an issue that’s meaningful to you. Software developer Paul Ford designed Anxiety Box to periodically email himself sentence fragments relating to his personal anxieties. As he describes in episode 8 of Reply All, trying to repress his internal monologue of anxious thoughts only made it more powerful, so he hoped that externalising it would help him view them objectively. The spam-like formatting of the Anxiety Box’s messages made it easier not to take his negative thoughts so seriously; it helped him reframe his negative self-beliefs into much more manageable (and “ridiculous”) chunks.

App therapy

Though related to the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, in which people try to recognise and reframe their negative thought patterns, Anxiety Box was never intended to be a clinical therapeutic treatment for large populations. But some designers are teaming up with scientists to do just that.

Creative director of Playlab London Simon Fox drew on his experiences with panic attacks to design the game Flowy, which helps players control their breathing. In a talk at London’s Think Drink Do meetup series last year, Simon spoke about the app’s use of gamification to create behavioural change.

Playlab’s goal is to get Flowy adopted as a clinically recognised therapy by pairing up with researchers at King’s College London and the NHS to conduct controlled trials that can determine its clinical value. Simon Fox believes it’s essential for PlayLab to work with the pace of academic and clinical research – even though it’s at odds with the current trend in software design to release products in quick cycles of rapid change. It means development of Flowy may take longer, but they want to create a more lasting impact through robust product design.

The empathy machine

For the interdisciplinary team behind The Machine to Be Another, the problem is more existential: how can a person know what it’s like to be someone else?

Their solution “offers users the possibility of interacting with a piece of another person’s life story by seeing themselves in the body of this person and listening to his/her thoughts inside their mind.” Through a combination of VR headsets and a controlled performance environment, the Machine allows one person – the user – to interact with the performance space while another person – the performer – voices an internal monologue and mimics the user’s movements in the VR headset, giving the illusion that the user is the performer.

The aim is to confront personal biases and promote empathy in personal interactions by literally looking at the world through a new set of eyes. As described in their white paper, the researchers hope that their discoveries around embodied empathy could lead to advancements in conflict mediation, body dysmorphia treatment, accessibility design and more.

A sociology toolkit

The Empathy Machine is an open-source project that anyone with the technology and the know-how can reproduce. But it operates at an individual level: only one person can experience another person’s story at any given time. For mediating the disjuncture between ‘self’ and ‘other’ on a macro level, the techniques of anthropology, social psychology, and sociology form a useful toolkit.

Genevieve Bell, user experience strategist at Intel, describes her role as “bring[ing] the stories of everyone outside the building inside the building — and mak[ing] them count.” Including a mechanism in the design process for assessing the needs of consumers is vital, and sometimes it opens up surprising findings: for example, despite the perception that technical innovation is being driven by a young male consumer base, Bell’s data suggests that women spend more time online, particularly engaging with social networking. While the tech industry remains predominantly staffed by men, one challenge the industry will continue to face is designing for its largely female consumer base.

Whether through self-reflexive processes, machine-assisted experiential reframing, or cultural research outcomes, empathy is a key element in assessing which problems have true meaning and urgency in people’s lives. An engineer’s coda to the well-known Socratic principle that the unexamined life is not worth living could be that the un-empathetic product is not worth designing.

Caitlin’s PhD was about the anthropology of belly dance. She currently applies her anthropologist’s toolbox to finding human-focused meaning in large data sets at an edtech company. Find her on twitter @caitiewrites, or follow her blog where she covers topics ranging from dance to data science.

Image credit: CC Morgan

For the interdisciplinary team behind The Machine to Be Another, the problem is more existential: how can a person know what it's like to be someone else?

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