This week features a series of posts endeavoring to draw themes from the Delight Conference 2014 in Portland, as well as Design Week Portland. I shall each day post some thoughts collected in categories of creativity, curiosity, meaning, community, and empathy.

Empathy and Ethics

I have observed before that conversation can help us make more ethical decisions and that we can enhance our capacity for compassion by being attentive to conversation. Moreover, we can elevate our experience of being human through giving or what Roman Krznaric calls Outrospection. After the Delight Conference, I heard Metropolis editor-in-chief, Susan Szenasy assert that “Architecture and design need to recognize their obligation as humanist activities.”

After_SaussureSeveral speakers at Delight had offered similar cautionary advice, most notably Golden Krishna. Even the dedicated digerati such as Jonathon Colman of Facebook, perhaps, could also be highlighted as heeding the counsel that we be attentive to the human at the end of the experience we are designing and delivering. Nonetheless, my misgivings in this regard started to build when James McQuivey mentioned that his family’s Xbox Kinect device recognized him when he came within its proximity… I know, I am starting to sound like a Luddite, and yet Genevieve Bell had already pointed out how we are in a period of  transition where optimism about our technological advances is matched by the anxiety of unknown intrusions into the deepest, heartfelt, intimate levels of our identities.

For user experience designers, it isn’t enough just to think about the end user. While agreeing with Golden Krishna that we should think process not screen and that systems should adapt to individuals, it still is merely adequate to empathize with end users. We must be diligently sensitive to the ethics of the circumstances too. One way we can do this is, interestingly, through the Improv practices taught by Patricia Colley in her Serious Play workshop, during which she affirmed that Improv is like everyday life, where we have to be attentive, present and to listen and respond in a fundamentally human way.

How we can truly understand, perceive and empathize with the experience for and of someone else is to converse with them, in person. Of course, social forums and digital means offer communication and connection potential, but as I noted in this post here, one recent study showed that even the presence of a cell phone diminished the quality of a conversation. Simply put, conversation is itself a formidable user experience, and we should embrace the art.


Tomorrow: The next post in this series reflecting on Delight 2014 looks at the theme of curiosity…