Empathy & Human-Centered Design in a World with the Coronavirus

What a week.

You've probably experienced a lot of changes at home, and perhaps work too, in just the last 7 days. I know I have.

On top of recently becoming a dad just two weeks ago, my mom went into serious brain surgery 2,500 miles away exactly when last week's AMA webinar kicked off, and I could not be there. And, my other industry right now—the performing arts field—is reeling, as are other service businesses, restaurants, people in the transportation industry, and beyond. Many people were already struggling prior to this virus too, and so things are only that much harder for them now. While there's a lot to process right now for all of us, we all have to keep going.

At a time like this, I think it can be easy clamp down and think about, "what does this mean for me? my business? my family? my group?"

What should I do now when the new normal is yet to be defined?

Trust me, I get it.

Typically, I have a topic in mind before I sit down and write to you. Sometimes they are picked off my list; other times, they just come in a flash. Today, I was blank. I didn't know what to write about, but I knew something needed to be said, and as with design, part of the process is simply jumping in and doing without having all the information up front. It's about taking the step forward, and hoping that there is floor beneath you—even if you can't see it. You step, and then you step again; you learn by doing it.

Today's one of those days where I write without much confidence, but I write anyways because it will help me serve you better tomorrow, and just maybe, I'll serve one of you today. We're in this together, even if there's 6' between us now....or a lot of ethernet and fiber cable.

On the topic of distance, social distancing seems like one of those new normals that's going to be around for awhile.

This got me thinking that the precautions we're advised to take against Covid-19 align closely with one of the core concepts of practicing human-centered design: empathy.

I'm not just talking about the good deeds that many communities are now engaging in, from homemade mask-production to technology hackathons and singing from balconies.

Think about those social distancing instructions you've been getting. There's something very relevant to human-centered design in these instructions: understanding that the recommended precautions you're taking are not just about you.

It's about your community.

That hand washing?

It's not just about your safety. It's about your family, colleagues, customers, and neighbors.

You are also a risk to others at a time like this. Just as much as they are a risk to you.

I realize you are all smart enough to understand this, but this is actually very similar to one of the core tenets of good design.

When my clients initially approach me, I always ask them, "Why do you want my help right now? What type of change do you seek to make?"

They almost always say, "well, we need a great design!"

Yes, I know you want great design—everyone says that 😉

But how do we define what great design is?

If you look carefully and let empathy guide you, you'll see that the answer to this has a lot more to do about your customers and users, and not you. Put yourselves in their shoes. Think about their pain, situation, and context. Reflect. When you immerse yourself in their situation, the lights will come on, and you'll start to understand what they need, and what you can do for them.

In a way, it's an act of service.

Something we should all be doing right now.


My best to you as we all work through the Coronavirus one step at a time.

As you scrub those hands, remember it's just as much about protecting them as it is about you.

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

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