The importance of the study of user psychology for a designer cannot be overemphasized. It is well appreciated that the knowledge about nuances of behavior and the intricacies of mind affecting decisions and choices of individuals is so essential for creation of and enhancement in a design. Thus, we know that the first step towards designing user experience is to learn empathizing with the user and in simple terms, to put yourself in his or her shoes, sometimes, quite literally! Here is what I browsed recently –
‘When you truly understand a problem, it becomes your problem, emotionally. That’s empathy. You will feel it. A good solution will excite you. Not because you’re an emotional superhero, but because you relate to the users and you’re one of them now. ‘ (http://thehipperelement.com/)
When I read this description, I started thinking…. What it really means to empathize? How easy or difficult it is? How do I learn to empathize? How is it going to help me find a solution.
“Empathy is, at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people…It is how we, as individuals, understand through the use of imagination what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.” ( https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/empathy.html)
As I was assimilating some of these thoughts, I was suddenly reminded of a Ted talk I saw two years ago and I searched for ‘A man who wore a sanitary napkin’. It’s shocking to even imagine this and yet it’s true. I watched that Ted talk again and I realized how experience and knowledge change our perspectives. Today when I saw it again, I did not just get goosebumps, but knew how far someone can take the meaning of empathy.
Design may be born in the minds of the most unexpected and Arunachalam Muruganantham is a fine example of this. Muruganantham grew up in poverty and dropped out of school at 14, after which he took up small jobs as a machine tool operator, yam selling agent, farm laborer, welder, etc. to support his family. He started his journey towards a revolution of creating low cost sanitary napkins, after one peculiar observation — his wife’s awkward behavior — within a few months of their arranged marriage. He was intrigued when he noticed his wife hiding something in her hands, only to get revealed that she was holding onto a piece of dirty cloth since it was her ‘that time of the month’. That was his first ever confrontation with this reality, that women have to go through a menstruation cycle every month and almost all women from his area prefer cloth, leaves or other forms of fabric, instead of sanitary napkins. Sometimes, because they can’t afford; and sometimes because they don’t know about it. Imagine what a grave issue this is! This was his first realization of a problem.
Arunachalam had nothing on his mind except that this difficulty has to be solved. He approached the problem in a rather unstructured manner, and without formal knowledge about the concepts of fly on the wall observation, user survey, user interviews, contextual inquiry, behavioral mapping and the rest. But he did exactly the same: Arunachalam started out with his first step of understanding what the existing product is and hence as he mentions, at the age of 29 he touched and saw a sanitary napkin. He realized that he could possibly create this product at a much cheaper cost and set out on his mission to designing an affordable sanitary napkin. With 4 years of intense research and hard work, he created a low cost sanitary napkin. It was ironic as the women who were in fact the target users of the product shied away from testing it. Thus, his wife was his only available study subject and when she refused, he asked his sisters for help. They also found his ideas dubious and did not support him as well.
The man on a mission to solve the problem of menstruation did not have any volunteers to test his product. Hence, with no options left, he used it himself. He tried to understand the process in order to find a workable solution. He created the exact arrangement that would be required to examine the product. He replicated the experience of menstruation to understand the pros and cons of his design and successfully invented the first low cost sanitary napkins and the machine required to manufacture them.
It is an unbelievable story of a man who had a thriving motivation towards empathizing and helping women, and after getting a rejection from the users who would benefit from this creation, decided to be the user himself and to learn from it! To my mind, this is a phenomenal example of how empathy can lead to innovation.
To empathize is to really dive into the intricacies of behavior and nature and to understand that person’s perspective. But how can it be achieved? Does it require an imaginative mind? I think a person can imagine only that which has some connection with the past or present experiences or knowledge. In this sense, imagination has a certain degree of rationality attached to it. On the other hand, the domain of one’s emotionality is rather non-rational, because one cannot find a rational connection between emotions and experiences, not to say that there are no connections. The connections between our emotions and experiences are more associative than logical. I therefore think that persons having a good Emotional Quotient would be able to empathize more easily.
The first step towards empathising may be to identify the ‘pain points’ or ‘pleasure points’, that is to say the points where it hurts or pleases most, resulting in emotional reactions. While every person has a unique mind and exclusive thinking and feeling process, we have to make an attempt to cut closest to the aching nerve; This reaching out to others is facilitated if we have an open and accommodative heart and a receptive mind. Empathizing would help us find emotional connections with others. It may be difficult to think or imagine as someone else would; but the process of knowing emotionally will profoundly affect the way we understand others and enable us to contextualize personal preferences, which is why empathy plays a very important role in designing.
To know what the user wants is the key to successful design. True, but I have come to the conclusion that, the designer’s psychology — his or her mindset, willingness and determination to take great efforts in order to understand a problem and overcome difficulties — is as important as the user’s psychology. There may be tremendous hurdles, but how patiently we as designers, find solutions and how resolute we can be in adverse conditions would determine success and ultimately lead us towards a big breakthrough. Particularly, in situations when the end user is not cooperative and for some personal or social reasons would refuse to give feedback, the ability to empathize is the only tool available with the designer and hence it must be cultivated and developed systematically by every designer.
A new innovation is on the horizon of empathetic approach.