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Unconscious self-design

Why empathy can lead to bad experience design

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I was asked recently to define “self-design”. My first instinct was to simply say it’s bad user-centred design. Meaning, doing a bad job of designing based on your user target. The more I thought about it though, I started to see that there were two types of self-design – conscious and unconscious.

Conscious or intentional self-design is when you are knowingly designing based on your own needs and abilities. I’ve heard many product owners say that their product was inspired by a need that they had. If we thinking about the prototypical invention story it always starts with someone having a problem and thinking, “There’s got to be a better way!”. I’ve even had teams say they don’t need personas because they are their own users. It’s natural for us to view the world through our own lens and our own experiences can inspire great ideas. The problem here though is that as soon as an idea turns into a project, we lose all objectivity. Even if we are a perfect example of our user, as soon as we start working on our solution, our perspective on the problem starts to change. We start overlooking the flaws in our solution and assuming our users understand the intent of our solution and the limitations on the system.

The second type of self-design is unconscious. This is the small assumptions we make about our users’ needs without even realizing it. I’ve very rarely seen personas that weren’t millennial living in cities with high pressure tech related jobs. It’s not surprising that the teams I’ve worked with are typically millennials, living in cities with high pressure tech jobs. I suspect this is related to the design communities fascination with empathy. I can’t get through a designers resume without running into a reference to how they design with empathy for their users. In theory, being able to feel what our users do would make designing for our users a breeze. The problem with empathy is that it has been scientifically proven to be heavily biased towards people similar to ourselves. When a tragedy strikes in some other country, people are more likely to send donations if the people look like them, speak the same language as them or share the same beliefs/religion. When viewing the world through the lens of empathy, the problems of people like us will always be more salient while the needs of others could be overlooked.

Although empathy is about feeling, it also leads us to believe we can think the way our users do too. Unfortunately, here we tend to be very wrong. True user-centred design is about understanding the differences in mental models between us and our users. Through research we can define these differences, both the limitations but also the increased depth of our users, and create experiences that match their cognition, rather than our own.

The problem with self-design isn’t just that it ignores diversity or that it leads to poor usability. It’s also that we are all fighting over the same tiny segment while ignoring huge opportunities like baby boomers, recent immigrants or people living in rural communities. We’re overwhelming a small cohort with so much that they are becoming desensitized while missing out of big opportunities.

The solution is personas. This doesn’t mean formalizing your self-design by creating personas in your own image. You need to create personas that actively differentiate your product and define how your target is different than you. They should focus on features that define the pain point you are trying to solve and unique mental models of your target users. Whenever I see personas in a candidates portfolio I ask, “how would your design differ if your team had chosen a different primary persona?” or “what information about your persona surprised you?” Nine times out of ten they don’t have an answer.

If you are struggling to gain traction with your audience, take a moment to consider who you are targeting. Is it just yourself? Are there markets you are ignoring because they don’t activate your empathy? If you shifted to a different persona, how would it change your experience?