I’m organizing a conference. There are nine people on the committee. Every detail about the conference is on a Google doc. Only three of us use it; the rest ask questions at every meeting whose answers are readily available on the doc.
I’m caring for someone in the hospital. I create a Google doc so people can self-organize, and email the access info to her network of 50-odd people, asking for volunteers to help cook. Only one person uses it; the rest email me individually with their food and time preferences.
It has become entirely automatic for me to turn to technology solutions for logistical challenges. Hosting a movie screening? Ticketbud. Memorial invitations? Paperless Post. Wedding planning? EWedding. Need guests to see what kind of food others are bringing to our Sixth Annual Thanksgiving Extravaganza so we don’t end up with 50 pies? Evite.
Since you’re reading this column, I’m guessing you’re a kindred spirit. Any tool that automates the process, crowd-sources the labor, and facilitates the outcome is a welcome additional to our arsenal, am I right?
We forget. We forget that there are six people on that committee for whom a Google doc is as inaccessible as Mars. We forget that there are 49 people who are proud just to be using email, and who have neither the skill set nor the inclination to rely on something more complicated. We forget how few Internet services have truly penetrated the mass market, to the extent that they are no longer scary for the “99%.”
But if we can put ourselves in their shoes, we can start a revolution. All we need is empathy.
Webster.com defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” It doesn’t mean being nice to people, or caring about people. It means feeling the world from their perspective, rather than from your own. Among the many dichotomies exposed by Walter Isaacson in the Steve Jobs biography is the fact that someone who -- forgive me -- was such an asshole could be capable of so much empathy.
Without empathy, you create products that are simple for you to use. With empathy, you create products that are simple for a two-year-old to use.
It isn’t easy. When something is so intuitive to you, it can be difficult to appreciate just how not intuitive it is to someone else. It can be difficult to withhold judgment. It can be difficult to remember just how lucky we are that our minds and our education have adapted us well to this online era, and that there but for our privileged background, upbringing and fortuitous timing go we.
A person who doesn’t understand FourSquare isn’t stupid. She has just adapted to a different set of life circumstances. And those life circumstances don’t mean she doesn’t need or want technology. They just mean that, if we want to make that technology accessible to her, we have to have empathy.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter. Bonus: If the topic of empathy interests you, you might enjoy this TEDx talk by John Marshall Roberts on ”The Global Urgency of Everyday Empathy.”