Empathy & speculative UX design. The rise of empathetic, or affective… | by Ultan Ó Broin | Dec, 2021

Ultan Ó Broin

Ultan Ó Broin

The rise of empathetic, or affective, computing offers tremendous possibilities of solutions for users. But where is the design of probable and possible solutions taking us without an understanding of empathy?

XRDS (Crossroads), the ACM magazine for research students, recently featured a super article called “Toward a more empathic relationship between humans and computing systems” by folks from Microsoft’s Human Understanding and Empathy group. The insights represent part of the exponential interest and research into what might be called “affective computing”. This seamless integration of empathy and technology offers great possibilities for speculative design.

“The challenge for all designers to now explore and enhance design thinking in a way that keeps empathy at the core of the solution.”

Breakthroughs in virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, neural networks, brain UIs, and more, are already shaping our world. Contemporary challenges arising from COVID, climate change, and societal issues are prompt us to explore what’s offered by speculative innovation right now. Augmented reality, in particular, offers the possibility of enhancing an existing world to tell a happier story, to make our interactions more empathetic by enabling us to become another person, customer, employee, family member, citizen, and so on. What if…

What is it like to really walk in someone else’s shoes? How can technology enhance empathy without ethical conflict?

There are serious ethical issues arising from this affective development, perhaps not that surprising, given existing concerns with digital manipulation. One of the ethical issues must be how empathy can not only be protected but empowered, surfaced. Already, there is extensive research into how current technology impacts human empathy; be it through extensive screen fixation or social media, for example. Evolving technology and speculative design add to the issues.

Empathy is at the core of UX design. Understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy is a critical skill for a designer, yet frequently this distinction is not appreciated. Fundamentally, you might consider sympathy as a moral stance of the designer being nice to the user, whereas empathy is a way of resonating with another’s feelings, and empowering those feelings through design.

Much has been written about how the freedom to invent can explore future offerings by leveraging the anxieties of the present. Yet, what is missing from this freedom is how design thinking and empathy fit into such speculation. Design principles and guidelines for successful machine-human interaction are now appearing, including for augmented reality.

That’s a good thing. The challenge for all designers is to now explore and enhance design thinking in a way that keeps empathy at the core of the solution while abstracting away the complexity of speculative innovation. Your thoughts on how that might happen are welcome.

Ultan Ó Broin is a user experience design professional and student from Ireland. Always willing to help.


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