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Will COVID-19 turn us all into experience designers?

I think we’re trending in this direction. Why?

It seems ~70% of today’s business content can be boiled down into three principles:

  • Practice empathy. “Now more than ever.” 
  • Consider context. “People have a lot going on.”
  • Listen and respond to the changing environment. “In these uncertain times…”

There is a lot of new content out there touching on these topics. Some of it feels useful and inspiring. Some of it feels like companies hopping on the buzzword bandwagon and missing by a few feet.

And yet, empathy, context, and listening/responding are not new. These are core principles for user experience and service design professionals. Without them, we would not have many of the digital experiences, interconnected services, and seamless interactions we have today.

Now, I am not here to stake a claim on behalf of the UX fiefdom. “We were here first! Get off my (conceptual) lawn!”

On the contrary.

I love seeing these principles discussed well beyond the typical UX/CX networks. But I’m seeing some of the discussion turn surface-level. Or, worse, get co-opted as self-congratulatory tools for promotion. “Look at my empathy! Isn’t it stunning?!”

So let’s break down what these principles truly mean. And what they look like in action.


Principle 1: Practice empathy

In other words: Strengthen your ability to think beyond your lived experience

Few people are inherently awesome at this. It isn’t natural to look at a situation or problem through the lens of another person. A person who every single day lives a life that is not our own.

Empathy is like a muscle. It requires training. We have to develop a habit of identifying the assumptions and biases we bring to the table, then looking at a situation or challenge through the lens of someone else’s lived experience.

Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is not compassion. Empathy is learning a new way to see.

There are several UX methods and frameworks that can help you, and other stakeholders, build those empathy muscles. From journey mapping to uncover insights for a communications strategy to simple conversations with customers to surface latent unmet needs.

When we talk about empathy in today’s environment, the “now more than ever” should be reframed to “now and should’ve always been.”

 

Principle 2: Consider context

In other words: Look at what’s happening outside your single interaction with a customer

If you Google the term “situational awareness,” you’ll find a lot of articles related to safety. Which makes sense. It’s true, our ancestors used situational awareness to sense threats in their environment and stay alive long enough to procreate so you could be born and read this sentence.

When defining a service or designing a digital experience, we need to be aware of what’s happening in the environments of our users, clients, or customers. This starts by asking questions:

  • What’s threatening my customer’s business this month?
  • What specific problem is this person solving, under what constraints? 
  • When users see this message, what’s going on around them? 

Answers to these questions help us properly frame the problem. They’re also a reminder that our service or product is not the most important thing in the life of our customers.

 

Principle 3: Listen and respond to the changing environment

In other words: Make rigorous prioritization your default state

When you encounter a broken or dysfunctional digital experience, there are usually multiple factors at play. Most often, the root cause is prioritization. A lack of prioritization when it came to insights, technical capability, team capacity, stakeholder feedback, content, features. Too many signals and no clear goals to inform the sensors. 

Simply “listening and responding” is misleading. More accurately stated: It’s about listening, prioritizing the data, and then responding with action. Prioritization is the most difficult step. There is a reason why so many prioritization tools and frameworks for building software exist.

Rigorous—often ruthless—prioritization is the necessary connective tissue between listening and responding.


Building our empathy muscles, digging for context, and responding to today’s tectonic shifts of change is no simple task. These skills require a hunger for insights, a drive for experimentation, and the stamina to keep going after missing the mark. 

While the pandemic won’t magically transform everyone into a designer by trade, more people may think like one. And advocate like one. And ask questions like one. I’m optimistic that the forces of today will shape a future where we can practice empathy and analyze finances in the same meeting.

So to the designers of today, let’s welcome this chorus of conversation. Every choir needs a conductor.

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