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

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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.

References

Al-Khalili, J. (2018). What the Future Looks Like: Scientists Predict the Next Great Discoveries―and Reveal How Today’s Breakthroughs Are Already Shaping Our World. The Experiment.

Billinghurt, M. (2014) Using augmented reality to create empathic experiences. 2014 Proceedings of the 19th international conference on Intelligent User Interfaces. https://doi.org/10.1145/2557500.2568057

Cottereau. T. (2021) Three Ways Augmented Reality Has Become A Utility In Business (2021). Forbes. November 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/11/24/three-waysaugmented-reality-has-become-a-utility-in-business/?sh=c31967a2b5e8

Czerwinski, M., Suh, J., Ramos, G. (2021). Toward a more empathic relationship between humans and computing systems XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students. Volume 28. Issue 1Fall 2021 pp 48–53https://doi.org/10.1145/3481842

Elmore, T. (2013) How Our Screens Diminish Our Empathy. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ie/blog/artificial-maturity/201708/how-ourscreens-diminish-our-empathy

Equal Reality. (2019). VR diversity, inclusion, equality of skills training. Virtual Reality Empathy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTVeXAcBlGw

Gibbons, S. (2019) Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX. Nielsen Norman Group.. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/sympathy-vs-empathy-ux/

Hoke, N. (2021) 5 Empathetic Design Principles for Successful Human-Agent Interaction. Intuition Robotics. https://blog.intuitionrobotics.com/5-empathetic-design-principles-for-successful-human-agent-interaction

Huntington, J. (1975). Science Fiction and the Future. NCET. https://doi.org/10.2307/376232

Miller M.R., Jun, H., Herrera F., Yu Villa J., Welch, G., & Bailenson, J.N. (2019). Social interaction in augmented reality. Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Stanford University. PlosOne. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216290

Rueda, J. & Francisco, L. (2021) Virtual Reality and Empathy Enhancement: Ethical Aspects. Front. Robot. AI. 09 November 2020 https://doi.org/10.3389/frobt.2020.506984

Vossen, H. G. M. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Do social media foster or curtail adolescents’ empathy? A longitudinal study. Clinical Child & Family Studies. Utrecht University. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.040.

Yilmaz, R. M. & Goktas, Y. (2017). Using augmented reality technology in storytelling activities: examining elementary students’ narrative skill and creativity. Virtual Reality. Volume 21, Issue 2, June 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10055-016-0300



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