There- that title sounds sufficiently highfallutin for my first post about design. I feel almost… Swedish. But it means something very important, at least to people who design things, and to people who use those things, whether they know it or not.
Good design begins with helping the consumer of the design. Figuring out what they need, and expressing the means to that end in some digital or material ways is what this is all about. Empathy, in other words, is where we start, and what we return to again and again as we iterate a design.
I’ll use a favorite metaphor- the ice cream shop. Its a nice real-world thing that has been screwed up in very educational ways a few times. Ready? Let’s screw it up!
Now, if we’ve got carte blanche here in our design, and we can go absolutely nuts, we might come up with this sort of apotheosis of all things ice-creamy. Ten- no twenty- no, FIFTY flavours! And a toppings section that would make Willy Wonka grind his teeth with envy- everything from sprinkles and chocolate sauce to like, beef jerky and soy sauce because reasons! We’ll be world famous and have to turn down invitations to give TED talks about redefining just what ice cream, like, means because we’ll be too busy with all the Ice Cream Nobel acceptance parties.
Now, lets turn on our empathy like the high functioning sociopaths we are, and take a look at our users. We have two kinds of consumer for the design- sometimes-screaming bundles of joy and their handlers? Right?
NO! That was a trick question, because I am a jerk. We actually have about five, and we determine that by identifying everyone who will be interacting with the design and then paring it down based on whether we care about them or not (we call them ‘stakeholders’ if we’re going to be boring).
- Kids. No denying that they are the impetus that turns ice cream into money. Whatever we do, we need the kids to want to do whatever it takes to get into that shop.
- Parents. These are the ones who control the money. The shop has to be at least one tiny bit less unpleasant than the tantrums.
- Grown ups who like ice cream and show up without kids. We certainly don’t want to turn them away, but we won’t try to get them at the cost of the kids.
- Employees. They are the face of our store, and can make the Ice Cream Experience ™ anything from delightfully whimsical to disturbingly loathsome.
- People and organizations who will have to deal with our shop. Suppliers, the stores next door, probably some governmental agency that licenses dairy products. They can make or break us, so we need to make nice.
Let’s dissect the kids first. What do they want out of all this? The joy of consuming flavored, low temperature bovine excretions. We can do that, no problem.
The parents, though- what do they want, aside from maybe an excuse to have a cone? Their needs are more complex:
- To make their children happy, or at least… quieter for a while.
- To have that not cost an arm and a leg.
- To have that be convenient.
Now, here is our first design revision, because we done goofed. Do kids care about having 50 flavors? Not really, no. They’ll say they do if you ask, but that’s just abstract. In reality, two or three flavors will satisfy them.
We want fifty because we’re the kind of obsessives who open ice cream shops. But we aren’t selling this to ourselves.
To the parents though- those fifty flavors are a gateway to Heck. This is something I call the Baskin Robbins Problem. We might think we want that much choice, but in reality it produces only stress. Why?
There is a significant cognitive load imposed by the choice itself, because we as humans are driven to maximize our benefit from choices. Two flavors are easy! Coke or Pepsi? Done. But 32? What if I get pistachio but really wanted banana but maybe I should get chocolate which has more calories am I allergic to durian fruit what time is my meeting is that spinach ice cream why would you do that :faints:
We are in that situation compelled to load the ramifications of 32 possible courses of action into our minds, and we don’t have that much RAM. Getting a dang ice cream cone should not feel like work.
Further, lets ask hooooow loooooong little Timmy can agonize over which flavor combination to pick before mommy loses her mind? How long before the merciless ticking of the cow-themed clock behind the counter drives her to madness? TICK TOCK MOMMY TICK TOCK
Man, she ain’t coming back to our shop. She’s going to go home and decide dairy is bad for the kids.
So. Three flavors.
Next time we’ll explore some other aspect of how empathy applies to design- maybe I’ll talk about how this blog post was way too long and that shows a failure to empathize with the reader!