Designing with Empathy

One issue we touched upon, which I think is really critical, is this idea of being easily able to influence behaviors in ways that are very important. For people who don’t know [how to better their lives], don’t think about it, or are busy doing other things, there’s a lot you could do to improve and facilitate what they do in ways that are useful. That is certainly true in behavioral economics and in design.

The other one is, if you remember in the book, we talk a bit about this sort of empathy bridge. The idea is that if we’re able to describe to you what it’s like to be super busy, maybe you’ll understand a little better what it’s like to be super poor. I think this empathy issue is really critical for when we think about policy, including neighborhood design—for you to perceive the other as not as exotic and bizarre and less good, but somebody who easily could have been you and vice versa, given a different situation. Our policies toward the poor, toward criminals, toward all kinds of people, are extremely non-empathetic. It’s very easy for us to erect enormous boundaries and distinctions based on our understanding, which creates lots of trouble in everything, from neighborhood safety to sharing our ideas and everything else.

from an interview with Eldar Shafir in Metropolis

System design

The idea that a person is at fault when something goes wrong is deeply entrenched in society. That’s why we blame others and even ourselves. Unfortunately, the idea that a person is at fault is imbedded in the legal system. When major accidents occur, official courts of inquiry are set up to assess the blame. More and more often the blame is attributed to “human error.” The person involved can be fined, punished, or fired. Maybe training procedures are revised. The law rests comfortably. But in my experience, human error usually is a result of poor design: it should be called system error. Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account. Pinning the blame on the person may be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever designed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity? Worse, blaming the person without fixing the root, underlying cause does not fix the problem: the same error is likely to be repeated by someone else.

― Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things