The Case for Immersion

By Ryan Montgomery on 03 05 2012

In the previous article “Looking Closer at Empathy” I outlined the differences between Sympathy and Empathy and how they impact product design, something we care deeply about at Mutually Human. This article will make the case for one of the most effective means to achieve Empathy when designing products for people: Immersion.

The Problem

Immersion is your most powerful tool for achieving Empathy, and having true Empathy is the best way to know that you're designing the right product. All of this is an attempt to reduce failure. Failure is not meeting the expectations of our customers, clients, and colleagues. I've heard many people say that they want to “under promise and over deliver” which is a way of avoiding failure by meeting expectations. However meeting expectations should not be only about safeguarding, but about hitting the mark right on target. This can be a very difficult thing to manage but it's important. If you are over budget or over time on delivering a product, your clients will be unhappy. That's obvious. But if you deliver on-time and/or under budget while burning out your team you've failed to meet their expectations.

Sally, meet Anne.

There is a strong correlation between empathy and meeting expectations which has been documented by psychologists in what is called the “Sally-Anne Test”.

“In the test process, after introducing the dolls, the child is asked the control question of recalling their names (the Naming Question). A short skit is then enacted; Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket. She then 'leaves' the room and goes for a walk. Whilst she is away, and therefore unbeknownst to her, Anne takes the marble out of Sally's basket and puts it in her own box. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question, the Belief Question: 'Where will Sally look for her marble?' For the children to 'pass' this test they must answer the Belief Question correctly, by indicating that Sally believes that the marble is in her own basket, continuous with her perspective although not with the child's own. If the child cannot take an alternative perspective, they will indicate that Sally has cause to believe—as they do—that the marble has moved. To pass, the children have to show that Sally has her own beliefs that may not correlate with reality.”

Setting expectations is a function of empathy. Your client is Sally. You are Anne. If you've moved the marble, it's important that you let them know where the marble is. Surprisingly, this can get lost in the process.

Get your hands dirty.

Recently while building an online social learning platform we took a trip to a classroom in an effort to better understand what it was like to use the app in the classroom. The experience was transformational. Many things we couldn't have known stood out almost immediately. A few minor things included the fact that one teacher turned the lights off so that the kids could see the teacher's computer on the screen on a projector. He did this because he was spending almost 60% of his classroom time explaining how to get from one page to the next. Sure they could have told us “I spend a lot of time explaining things” but sitting in a classroom of rowdy 6th graders and seeing how utterly difficult it is to keep their attention was enlightening. We saw how imperative it was to keep navigation to a minimum in order to spend more time teaching and less time explaining how to navigate the app. We also saw how important designing for intermittent internet access was; something that never came up in any conversation beforehand.

We also learned how adept these kids were at moving around their iPads. They actually showed us a few things you can do on the iPad we had never seen before. This gave us more confidence when designing the interface and what we could reasonably expect the students to handle. Our previous assumptions were from what we remembered about 6th grade. After seeing 6th grade in 2012, I have a very different point of view both of the teachers and students. Our other research coupled with this immersive experience allowed us to design a better product.

You've probably heard the expression “Scratch your own itch.” If you have “the itch”, and you can feel it under your skin, begging to be scratched, you are far more likely to understand how best to scratch it. You have near-perfect empathy because you are your own customer. And if you aren't your own customer, i.e. you don't have the itch, the best way to understand your customer or client is to put yourself in their physical context, like the classroom. Get your hands dirty. Don't sit on the sidelines and make projections. Be one with your customer. Being able to tell a story from your own experience is powerful.

Make the case.

This won't be obvious to everyone you work with. You'll probably get push-back about spending time in-the-field learning. I know it sounds crazy but it will happen. When it does, make the case that you're saving them money. Immersion is a research technique that will get you the most bang for your buck. Human beings have a “super power” for picking up attitudes and social cues when physically around others, in a way they could never learn from data. It's called empathy. Using this muscle more often and letting it drive the research process can yield high quality results in very little time. Less time means less money now and having more accurate research means less money over the long term. Business people like to call this a win-win!

Traditional research has its place, but it should only be used as one tool of many, and should never be used as the entirety of your research efforts. Making more informed decisions based on a shared context, and not on assumptions will always lead to better decision making.

This isn't high falutin either. Great companies like Nike get it. They're all runners. They love running and do it all the time, so the minute one of their shoes aren't great for running they know about it. They can project it and dream what they want from their shoes. No assumptions. All empathy.

Just do it.

Successful entrepreneurs and large established companies alike have already demonstrated that they can stand apart from the competition by immersing themselves in the reality of their customers. There's no reason that you wouldn't try to do the same. Try your best to get into the world of your customer, whether it's a school, a hospital, or a travel agency. Make the case to your clients and save them time and money. Most importantly, use empathy and immersion to build the best product possible.

Coming Soon - Part 3: Internal Expectations (Using Empathy inside your Team to drive results)