The Next UX Design Frontier: Enlightened Empathy

Henry Ford, the father of the automobile, is famously quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses…” He, of course, envisioned and brought to market a product (the Model T) that very few customers knew they wanted or needed. Horses are probably faster today than they were in 1900, but the world today is literally driven by the automobile.

Another legendary innovator, Steve Jobs, once said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” Indeed, I don’t believe many of us could have ever predicted the iPod click wheel when it first came out. So strange yet so easy to use. Similarly, neither consumers nor experts predicted the app-centric nature of computing that the iPhone and iPad have wrought.

The job of knowing what a customer wants and needs often falls to product designers. When building products, designers must conceive of not only how the end user will interact with a product, but more importantly how end users will feel during and after using the product. It is a transcendental role. By peering into the future, designers often end up building our present.

“Design is everywhere. From the dress you’re wearing to the smartphone you’re holding, it’s design.” – Samadara Ginige

As software eats the world, user experience (UX) design has become a “must have” element. Our personal lives are now dominated by “one-click” purchases, “like” buttons, and ubiquitous swiping. History tells us that the arc of design bends towards simplicity and reductionism. One need only see the lone Google search bar, the simplicity of the Nest thermostat, or the gradual elimination of buttons from the iPhone. Fewer options, fewer buttons, fewer clicks.

When it comes to UX design, however, the enterprise (B2B and B2G) software domain remains a laggard. Not surprisingly, complexity is often a root cause. The problem is especially pernicious with government solutions. While government has shifted away from paper-based forms toward websites and more slowly, mobile apps, UX concepts such as user journey mapping, personas, and simplicity, have often been an afterthought. Functionality is considered more important than usability. Luckily, the mental model is changing.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the government workers who operate mission-critical systems and the citizens that interact with government websites have one thing in common. Both are consumers. As a result, they expect far more of government software and systems than in the past. No one wants to separate the experience of shopping for new pair of pants online from the experience of updating their permanent address with the DMV. Both “user journeys” should be equally intuitive and straightforward. Expectations around usability of government solutions have been raised and everyone – citizens, government employees, and contractors – will benefit from it.

One central concept within UX design is empathy for the user. Designers are tasked with truly understanding the user. Often, designers use a concept called persona mapping. As part of this user research effort, designers literally define and codify what a user thinks, feels, says, fears, and desires in order to build a better experience for the user when using the product. The logic here is that by better understanding the user, their intent, and their feelings, the overall design and usability of the product or software is improved. These UX design concepts make sense – products should start and end with the user in mind.  A focus on understanding and appreciating how users interact with products ipso facto improves how all products (software included) are designed.

“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” – Robert L. Peters

User-centered design yields better products. No concerns there. However, we (collectively) face a more fundamental, perhaps moral question when it comes to UX. As we continue to unravel the depth and complexity of human-machine interactions and drive improvements in product usability, to what extent should we design our products to guide a user’s behavior to an intended end-state? That is, at what point does understanding what a user wants and desires translate into “nudging” a user to the “appropriate” outcome based on the perception of another person’s wants and desires? Where does user choice start and end? What role does UX play in influencing choices?

Of course, it is here that we start to enter the gray with UX design. Design defaults, if misused, can be dangerous. For example, a common default setting allows one’s checking account to go negative (instead of just declining the transaction). The next time you try to purchase the newest pair of AirPods, despite your bank balance, your purchase will very much go through. Those shiny white pair of headphones in your pocket satiate your need, quell your desire. At least in the moment. After all, your intent in swiping your card was clearly to consummate the purchase. However, you are also left with an overdraft fee (i.e., revenue for the bank). You may also find yourself a little deeper in the financial hole (i.e., potentially larger monthly payments). In the end, that default probably did not lead to the most desirable outcome. At least for you, the consumer.

In their intriguing book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein present the concepts of “choice architecture” and “libertarian paternalism”. At its heart, the book argues that policy makers can (and should) effectively drive better behaviors throughout society while still preserving freedom of choice by nudging us towards them. Indeed, they state that the individual must define what “better” behaviors means as a starting point and that systems should merely help get us there. But individuals don’t always know what is best for them. Our stated desires and our actual latent desires aren’t always the same. In UX design speak, there is a natural limit to empathy.

Thaler and Sunstein also highlight the fact that choice architecture and defaults matter. Examples abound – see organ donation opt-in versus opt-out, the location of items in a grocery store, and calculating out tips of 15%, 18%, and 20% on receipts. Users check email more often when notifications are on. Same with social media and other mobile applications. Choice architecture and defaults matter.

The trouble is, as users of products, we struggle to separate out what we want from what we should want. We often yearn for what is right in front of us, instead of what is good for us over time. For example, YouTube and Netflix may argue that auto-playing the next video is what the user really wants. It is easier to auto-play (just keep going) instead of forcing the user to click on the next video in the series. Their designers may argue that binge watching is pleasurable. But is it really? Most folks don’t feel so hot after gorging themselves on 7 episodes of The Witcher. The momentum to continue binging is simply too great. Do we really need Netflix to do it for us?

“When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical.” – Jony Ive

Should it be incumbent on the designers of these video streaming platforms to dissuade binge-watching? Maybe. Should banking companies do a better job of encouraging healthy financial habits (e.g., automatic saving or investing) and reducing impulse shopping (e.g., cool-down periods)? Perhaps. Should our email tools automatically turn off from 10am-2pm to allow for uninterrupted blocks of focused time at work? Possibly. With UX design, all of these considerations and more are doable.

As we push towards the outer limits of our understanding of the user, we will come to a precipice. We will reach a point where we will potentially understand the consumer better than she understands herself. We reach the edge of understanding wherein user habits and behaviors are mutable. It is this edge that I will call “enlightened empathy.” It is appreciating that user actions always have reactions – both in the short-term and the long-term. It is conceiving that choices matter, not just today, but over time. This UX design edge forces us to come to terms with the potentially lasting implications of simple UX choices.

To quote Voltaire (or Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” The innovators behind products of all kinds – consumer, enterprise, and government – must be mindful of the impact UX design can have on their users. They wield the power to drive behavior (be it healthy or unhealthy) and create habits (be they desired or not). As such, it is a privilege they must handle with great care.

Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across state, local, federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.

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