Empathy and teams

How can you create products without being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, without caring deeply about how they will use your product and how they will feel. The same with the people you work with. If you really don’t care about them or their time, if you don’t try to help, or aren’t aware of their needs, how can you possibly work well together as a team? The best teams I’ve ever worked with were in music, where everyone intuitively worked together, communication was nothing more than a glance or a deep breathe. I often think of these questions lately.

Below is section from Stewart Butterfields recent interview in The New York Times, Is Empathy on Your Résumé?

You’ve had a couple of big successes, starting Flickr and now Slack. What are your thoughts about culture?

I really admire good restaurants. I don’t necessarily mean expensive ones. I mean restaurants that are well run with a seamless kind of flow. I notice things like whether the servers keep an eye on each other’s tables. If someone needs the check, they’ll tell each other. I think everyone likes working in an environment like that.

I played in jazz bands when I was younger, and I like playing improvisational music generally. You really have to keep your eye on everyone at the same time.

So how do you try to maintain that feel as your company grows?

One of our values is that you should be looking out for each other. Everyone should try to make the lives of everyone else who works here a little bit simpler. So if you’re going to call a meeting, you’re responsible for it, and you have to be clear what you want out of it. Have a synopsis and present well.

At the same time, if you’re going to attend a meeting, then you owe it your full attention. And if it’s not worth your attention, then say so — but don’t be a jerk about it — and leave the meeting.

People can go to work every day for a year and not really get anything done because they’re just doing the things that they felt they were supposed to be doing. We just went through this process of canceling almost every recurring meeting that we had to see which ones we really needed. We probably do need some of the ones we canceled, and they’ll come back — but we’ll wait until we actually need them again.

When we talk about the qualities we want in people, empathy is a big one. If you can empathize with people, then you can do a good job. If you have no ability to empathize, then it’s difficult to give people feedback, and it’s difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder.

One way that empathy manifests itself is courtesy. Respecting people’s time is important. Don’t let your colleagues down; if you say you’re going to do something, do it. A lot of the standard traits that you would look for in any kind of organization come down to courteousness. It’s not just about having a veneer of politeness, but actually trying to anticipate someone else’s needs and meeting them in advance.


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Screenshot 2015-07-02 20.56.44

In the annals of Apple error messages, of which lately their have been more and more, this must rank up there as one of the most developer centric. I can only imagine what would be going through a users mind when after clicking on iTunes this message appears. This update is rife with problems, testing must be taking a back seat at Apple. Or in the case of iTunes, this is what happens when you put a musician in charge of software product management.

Either way I can’t open iTunes.


He doesn’t state it strongly enough. Unfortunately, no matter how strongly or loudly you state this fact, often it goes unheard.

Typically, the burden is on the user to learn how a software application works. The burden should be increasingly on the system designers to analyze and capture the user’s expectations and build that into the system design. Norman, 1988


Why are Mental Models Important to Usability?

“Usability is strongly tied to the extent to which a user’s mental model matches and predicts the action of a system. Ideally, an interface design is consistent with people’s natural mental models about computers, the environment, and everyday objects. For example, it makes sense to design a calculator program that has similar functionality and appearance to the physical hand-held calculators that everyone is familiar with”.

Via Mental Models and Usability. Mary Jo Davidson, Laura Dove, Julie Weltz


So often in my new experiences complexity is the selling point, the starting point, and/or the proof of your value. People (customers) don’t share this vision. People are intelligent but must be set free to construct the level of complexity they are comfortable with, or need.

Complexity isn’t designed but rather rises spontaneously through self-organisation. Start with basic or simple interactions and allow more complex behaviours or patterns to emerge.
From an old project proposal, source is likely from theory of emergence.


No medium has managed to reach the status of genuine artistry without offending some of its audience some of the time. Even under the user-friendly dictates of interface design, you can’t make art without a good measure of alienation.
Steven Johnson, Interface Culture (HarperEdge, 1997)


More choice equals more choice

My current projects all involve dealing with issues of featureitis, software with simple uses, but with a monstrous amount of controls and options. It’s well designed software created by brilliant nice people, but many have fallen into the belief that more UI controls, more options, more visible data, somehow makes software more desirable. This is of course a long held problem, routed not just in software (ala. Microsoft Windows) but in Western Society herself. As far as interface design is concerned, I know from experience, more choice as a feature seldom works, as complexity leads to more complexity, more choice leads to dissatisfaction.

Neil Turner summarises some of Barry Schwartz’s thinking in answering the question:

Is lots of choice a good thing?

You see it turns out whilst people will invariably ask for more choice, lots of choice is not really a good thing for the following reasons:

  • More choice means more options for people to consider, and a greater cognitive workload to do so, as all the different options are weighed up and evaluated.
  • With lots of choice the burden of responsibility is placed on the person making the choice, rather than those drawing up the choices. If a bad choice is made it’s because someone chose the wrong option, not because a poor set of options were made available.
  • More choice means greater expectations, and a greater probably of not meeting those expectations. With so many options available, people will expect there to be one that is exactly what is need, and will no doubt be disappointed when they don’t choose it.
  • More choice means less engagement.Sometimes people would rather not take part, than have to go through a million and one different options. For example, an interesting study showed that for every 10 investment funds that an employer offered for their pension scheme (e.g. 10, 20, 30, 40 different funds, and so on), uptake fell by 2%. Employees were put off participating because they didn’t want to have to select from so many different options.
  • The paradox of choice and why I stopped using Spotify

Ideally, we would focus entirely on those features or controls that users need to accomplish their goals while deleting our through perhaps progressive disclosure keep all the complexity hidden from all but the most advanced user. My experience is that that is far more difficult than it ought to be but its a challenge worth engaging in.

Below is a ted talk where Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.


It’s not strategy

Michael Bierut, a respected visual designer, said this about luck during an interview with Adaptive Path founder Peter Merholz:

“It’s a dirty secret that much of what we admire in the design world is a byproduct not of ‘strategy’ but of common sense, taste, and luck. Some clients are too unnerved by ambiguity to accept this and create gargantuan superstructures of bullshit to provide a sense of security.”

From Mental Models by Indi Young


At the outset, your primary goal for reading is to improve your speaking

Why is it so important that you begin to read more extensively? Adult learners of a foreign language don’t have the luxury of learning to speak the way babies do. To a great extent, we must absorb a foreign language via written texts. The linguist Ferdinand Saussure tells us that written language is merely the external representation of speech; the spoken language is the basis of the written language. Thus, for a student of a foreign language, who usually doesn’t have as much verbal linguistic input as a baby has, reading is a way of getting familiar with the nuts and bolts of the language, a shortcut to developing an intuitive “feeling for the language” (Sprachgefühl in German, or, in Chinese, yǔgǎn 语感). And this path is what has, up to now, been very difficult for Chinese learners.

David Moser making the case for reading as a means to improve your spoken language. In the past, beginning to read Chinese was an arduous process but with the abundance of digital tools now available it’s far less time consuming for the adult learner. From The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading.

Steve Kaufmann also shares similar views in a couple of videos: How I went about learning Mandarin & 学语言的7个原则


Offline Adblock

Imagine an environment with no advertising, that’s the idea behind BrandKiller, a project developed by four Philadelphia developers named Jonathan Dubin, Reed Rosenbluth, Tom Catullo, and Alex Crits-Christoph as part of as part of Penn’s annual PennApps hackathon.