Blog // April 16, 2016

Libraries and Empathy

I came across this quote by Henry David Thoreau on the site Design Facts and it got me to thinking about empathy in libraries and the challenges we can face to being truly empathetic with our users.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.

I’ve often faced this challenge while working on complex projects like website redesigns that force you to delve into the rationale for certain programs, services, or policies. You have to balance hard data like pageviews with less quantifiable information gathered from user interview or usability testing to see clearly.

Thoreau’s quote about looking and seeing is a reminder that our understanding can be clouded or obscured. That’s why I like to idea of “beginner’s mind” so much. It’s easy to get comfortable in what you know, but knowing how and when to let go of your point of view and expertise is a very important, particularly when you are trying to understand or learn something new.

As the Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki describes it:

In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.

So, whether I am tasked with redesigning a website or understanding how a particular department works, I try, as much as possible, to clear my mind of any preconceived notions or expectations.

Being open in this way to see and hear what people are doing and saying is essential for creating empathy. Empathy is a very important concept in user-centered design, and has achieved buzzword status in the last few years.

On its face, empathy is a very easy concept to grasp–our capacity to imagine or understand what another person is experiencing or feeling. In practice though, empathy is a much harder thing to achieve, if it’s something you can ever truly achieve at all.

And yet design organizations like IDEO place so much emphasis on empathy during the design process. In fact for IDEO, design simply cannot happen without empathy:

People who cannot temporarily let go of their role or status or set aside their own expertise or opinion will fail to empathize with others who have conflicting thoughts, experiences, or mental model.

Without empathy you aren’t able to find the “extremes”. It’s important to be on the lookout for extremes–the patron who groks how eBooks works and downloads them like a fiend, the community partner who is always ready to collaborate, or the staff member who attracts a following. For IDEO:

[Extremes] prompt us to discover new meanings and interpretations for old things.

In each case, these extreme behaviors help us see what’s already around us in a new way.

IDEO also encourages designers to have “out of ego” experiences to help them see other points of views and experiences. Some of their examples include laying on the floor with the children you’re designing for or taking a roadtrip to understand car culture.

Out of ego experiences may sound grandiose, but in a library it can be as simple as checking out materials the way patrons do or trying to do your work on a public computer. It’s not a stretch to think of community engagement efforts, like setting up an information table at the train station or participating in community service projects, as “out of ego” experiences for the organization. More and more libraries are intentionally creating these opportunities for engagement by using design thinking or the Harwood approach to “turning outward”.

This may sound paradoxical but I think it is increasingly important for libraries to demonstrate their value by constantly questioning their value. We need to be experts and guides who are open to not being experts and guides, to learning and exploring alongside our patrons and community.