Lessons in Empathy: BD Conference

January 28, 2015 | Matt Diehl & Sam Armacost

Collection of items from the BD Conference Conferences in the Web development industry often focus on technical aspects of the profession. We can find presentations on everything from exploring ways to approach responsive images, to debating the merits of the latest front-end task runner. While some talks at BDConf Orlando addressed specific concerns of our craft, the underlying topic of the two-day event was empathy.

Prior to Jason VanLue’s explicit evocation of the term near first day’s conclusion, speakers preached the importance of communication and understanding at all points during the creation of a website. Whether we are working with a client, or our users are interacting with a site, we must enter each relationship with a keen sense of empathy.

Many industries emphasize the need to educate clients about issues which may impact the end result. One overarching theme of BDConf took this concept further: it is essential to go beyond teaching the client; rather you should strive to empathize with them. Therefore, this learning process must go both ways. As Ben Callahan pointed out, that can include determining a common language. What one person calls “navigation,” another may call “tabs” no matter the visual appearance. Continually seeking clarification can help smooth out these and similar issues prior to proposing the wrong solution. Drawing from his experience developing Entertainment Weekly’s responsive redesign, Jonathan Stark stressed open communication as the bedrock of a project’s success. The creation of Entertainment Weekly involved weekly reviews removing the traditional approval process and negating the need for a big reveal. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s assertion that “feelings can be as important as features” in regards to content management, extrapolates to the entire Web development process. An empathetic understanding of client feelings fosters collaboration, and results in a project that instills confidence for everyone involved.

Perhaps the most important relationship in the Web development industry is between a site and its users. Empathizing with users of our sites is extremely difficult because in most cases they exist behind a veil, but we can learn about how our sites are accessed and develop user-friendly solutions.

We can start empathizing with users by understanding that our experience of using a site is possibly very different than theirs. Jason VanLue discussed the global/cultural aspect of this idea with the example of mobile banking. While we may view mobile banking as the logical way to do something old, Africans understand mobile banking as the logical way to do something new. The symbol/icon of a building to represent banking makes little sense to users who have never actually seen a physical bank.

We can also empathize with users by getting a snapshot of them through user testing. User testing may not always be possible given budgets or other constraints, but it provides an invaluable look at how your users will actually interact with a site. Ben Callahan summed up this notion well: “You and your client working without your users is guesswork.

Jeremy Keith discussed the “fault tolerant” nature of the Web and how to embrace it. The core languages of the Web, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, are, and should be understood as, layers. In this approach, HTML is the only absolutely necessary component as it contains all of the actual information about a given document. HTML is also fault tolerant, meaning browsers are designed to interpret unknown code as simply another element. Therefore, we should build our sites to work first as HTML alone, then add the other layers of the site. CSS is also fault tolerant, so we can add new features and still support older browsers. The only non-fault tolerant component of the Web is JavaScript (and rightly so). Users access our sites from a wide array of devices with varying capabilities and connection speeds, so we should never make JavaScript a requirement for using a site. View CSS, and especially JavaScript, as layers we can use to enhance our sites for users.

The importance of empathy is not limited to interactions within our field, but applies broadly to include what we create for global consumption. As described by Jason VanLue’s firsthand account, mobile sites and apps can have a significant effect on communities without traditional internet access. VanLue described an African woman who used to complete a dangerous 4-hour trek to deliver cash to her family. The advent of mobile banking significantly changed her life by diminishing the need for this weekly task. As Google’s Project Loon, a network of balloons filling gaps in Internet access, and similar efforts continue, the value of these mobile resources to the global community will grow exponentially. However, empathy is essential in both the ideation and creation of these tools. Being mindful of limited resources and bandwidth in these emerging networks will foster the development of less brittle, more useful projects for the betterment of the world.

About the Authors

Matt
Matt Diehl

When I'm not making websites at TBG as a Senior Front-end Developer, I'm often making sites at home, learning more about building them, or playing guitar in a dingy basement in Paul Newman and the Ride Home.

Sam
Sam Armacost

I'm a Front-end Developer. When I'm not thinking about and working on websites (which is 24/7), I like to bake, garden, and hang with my cat Cornbeef.

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