A little background for this post…I was recently accepted as a mentor in the Technovation Challenge program, which kicked off this week. The program’s goals are near and dear to my heart: promote women in technology. It’s an exciting 9-week program where teams of high school girls develop a business plan for, and actually build, a fully functioning prototype Android app — and then pitch it at the end of the program to a panel of outside experts. Totally cool! But I digress…
Tonight we discussed a five-step design process that the girls are going to use when developing their apps — Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Feedback. The steps aren’t anything revolutionary or new — they just represent a good solid design process. But sometimes it’s good to get reminded about the basics.
So I got to thinking about “empathy” in the context of what we in IT do every day. Empathy, of course, is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (dictionary.com). Or, as one of our girls said tonight, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
I think we’d all like to believe that we’re empathetic to our users. We try really, really hard to understand the needs of our users; to identify with their experiences using the technology we provide. We can — and do — ask questions, watch interactions and behavior, and make careful *observations* — not *interpretations* about what we see. But is that enough to impact the design of our technical services in a meaningful way?
In the fall, I got the chance to truly put myself into our faculty’s shoes when I taught a semester-long course on Web Design. I’ve given a lot of presentations, conducted numerous trainings, and talk extensively to faculty about their experiences with and use of technology in the classroom. And *none* of that compared to the first-hand experience I gained teaching in the classroom.
There were a number of issues I experienced that I would have considered minor had I heard about them from faculty, prior to my own experiences. My first day of class the printer was out of paper. Another day the YouTube streaming was somewhat halted, buffering every so often for a second or two. And then there was the issue with the plug-ins, the sound dial, and so on — and all, truthfully, were minor from a technical perspective.
I’ve seen help desk tickets like these before, and have been empathetic to them. But I’ll admit, a little, teeny, tiny part of me has felt like you have to expect some level of…je ne sais quoi…when it comes to technology, and you just have to be flexible and, well, deal with it. Not that I’d ever tell someone to just deal with it, mind you. I swear.
While these little issues became quite large issues when I was standing in front of a class trying to teach, what surprised me most about my experience was my ability — or lack thereof — to use the technology in place for me. Quite simply, I couldn’t. I’m a highly technical user, but when it came to using our technology in a real-world setting I couldn’t do much more than use the most basic of tools — the computer and projector. The classroom is nicely equipped with software to allow faculty to show their screen to students, or show one student’s screen to the class — both of which would have been helpful in my class. While I’ve actually pitched the benefits of this program to our faculty, and conducted some of the training on it, I couldn’t work it “on the fly” when I was trying to also teach on a different subject matter.
So what does this have to do with empathy? We can *vicariously* experience what our users do and gain some level of empathy, but nothing compares to the real thing. I look at our classrooms and our instructional support tools in an entirely new way because of my experiences last semester.
If institutions want to build better relationships between their faculty and IT — a connection that is generally presumed to be shaky, at best — I believe they can do no better thing than put their CIOs and senior IT managers into the classrooms to teach. Having that experience did not make me an expert in teaching or in the needs of faculty — far from it — but it did provide me with a much better framework for asking questions, observing behavior, and intellectually identifying with our faculty. And that’s the goal, right?