Posts tagged “empathy”

Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh

Susan Simon Daniels is a Senior Design Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, ON.

In September 2012, I was interviewing people who had recently purchased and set up a smartphone. During the interview, I asked the participants to unbox and set up another, new smartphone to see if any usability problems emerged.

One of the interviews was with a male in his late 40s who worked as a translator for people whose first language was not English (I’ll call him “Rick.”) As he unpacked the box that contained the new smartphone, Rick frowned and sighed. I watched silently and noted that a few moments later Rick sighed again.

At this point, the researcher inside my brain was shouting, “Red alert! There’s a problem! There’s a problem!” After a few more moments, I turned to him and said, “Rick, I noticed you’re frowning a bit and you’ve sighed a couple of times. Can you tell me why?”

I waited, fingers poised to capture the fatal flaw that the participant had discovered in the product set up – something so egregious that it evoked a heavy sigh!

Rick turned to me and instead shared a personal story. Both he and his spouse had recently lost their parents. These major life events, complicated by delays in traveling to another continent for funerals and family arrangements, left a lingering sadness that crept up on Rick during quiet moments.

His sigh was just a sigh – not a signal of a defect or usability issue to solve, but a personal moment I happened to witness. We talked for a few minutes about his loss and how he was feeling and then Rick returned to the task at hand and continued to unbox and set up the phone.

We had passed through an awkward moment. I felt I had rudely probed into an open wound. But I had to ask the question. I couldn’t assume the frown and sighs were caused by the product or process. My job was to get to the why. At the same time, by taking a few minutes to let the person share how he was feeling, I was able to give Rick the time he needed to gather himself together and continue with the task at hand.

In the end, Rick contributed by uncovering a couple of areas of improvement for the product. And I found that taking a moment to pause, to just be human beings who shared a bit of sympathy, allowed us to resume the interview with dignity and purpose.

I’m reminded of a verse from the song “As Time Goes By” (music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld) from the classic war-romance movie Casablanca.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And the fundamental things do apply: never assume and always ask “why?”

Overcoming bias and developing empathy

Here are two interesting articles that feed right into the themes of my workshop, The Designer is Present, happening at the end of this month at UX Australia.

An Appeal to Our Inner Judge is about how biases – judgements we make quickly about others – are natural but can be overcome. The excerpt below comes at the end and is applicable to many things, not the least of which is becoming a better user researcher.

Recognize and accept that you have biases. Develop the capacity to observe yourself in action and to notice when certain people or circumstances serve as triggers.

Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. This can be particularly important when we are in circumstances that make us feel awkward or uncomfortable.

No Time to Think considers our always-on culture and the reluctance we have (as a result?) to be in the off position and (ulp!) alone with our thoughts. In the quoted part below, from the end of the article, it makes the case for what I’m aiming for with the workshop; that presence and mindfulness are essential for the work that many of us are doing.

Studies suggest that [a lack of presence] impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind. Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

The veneer of empathy

From this article about newsroom practices at USA Today

For Social Media Tuesdays, the staff must act as if there is no other way to get their articles except through sites likes Facebook and Reddit. That means USA Today’s journalists diligently place each of their famously punchy, graphic-rich stories onto various social media platforms. The purpose is to get them thinking like their readers, who increasingly get news through their Twitter feeds instead of the paper’s front page or home page.

“Think like your reader” is a generous framing as it highlights empathy, and who wouldn’t want their company, their products, their staff to be more empathetic? In fact, trying to get attention through social media is an exercise in manipulation (see Harry McCracken’s analysis/history of the “restore your faith in humanity” flavor of linkbait). That’s not empathy.

I’m not sure if this distortion was introduced by the reporter directly or whether they simply took what they were given at face value. Either way, that’s poor journalism (which is ironic in an article about the challenges facing the newspaper industry).

Now, the idea of taking what you know how to do and setting it aside, as a creative constraint, is a fabulous approach, like something from Oblique Strategies (See more about Brian Eno, one of the creators of Oblique Strategies, in this great article about his approach to art and creativity).

Young students do “fieldwork” to learn about others

In For Lessons About Class, a Field Trip Takes Students Home very young children are exposed to the homes and possessions of others. The thrust seems to be about class, but to me it seems like establishing an early model for empathy as well. The notion that other people are different from you seems foundational and it’s exciting to see this being addressed experientially. Check out the slideshow for the worksheets and debrief sessions!

Some of us have more toys and bigger homes than others. We all have a lot in common, but there are certain things that make us unique, too. Let’s talk about those things and celebrate them, even. This is not standard prekindergarten curricular fare, but it’s part of what the 4- and 5-year-olds at the Manhattan Country School learn by visiting one another’s homes during the school day. These are no mere play dates though; it’s more like Ethnography 101. Do classmates take the bus to school or walk? What neighborhood do they live in? What do they have in their homes? Over the last several weeks, I tagged along to find out. The progressive private school considers the visits to be one of the most radical things it does. “We knew we needed to talk about social class,” said Lois Gelernt, the teacher who came up with the idea. “It was opening up a can of worms, but if we were never going to talk about who we are and where we come from, the sense of community wasn’t going to be there.”

Can you engineer empathy (as part of learning to code)?

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From Engineering Empathy [Re/code]

Dev Bootcamp, an intensive nine-week coding program in San Francisco’s South of Market district, offers a unique “Engineering Empathy” curriculum. About 30 students stood in pairs and spoke to their partners simultaneously: You don’t respond to email fast enough. Why are you checking Twitter — nothing important happens there. You’re too old to be here. You’re faking it. You don’t know how to develop. You have no career. You’re the worst pair partner. Your accent makes you hard to understand. You’ll never get a programming job.

When the cacophony finally subsided, many of the would-be programmers were in tears. Some were holding hands. One man sat down and put his head in his hands. “My superego runs on a disappointment platform,” he said to the room.

The culture of tech (male-dominated, sexist, entitled and so on) has become even more visible as of late. Even the parodies of Silicon Valley, such as HBO’s Silicon Valley, face criticism for not being inclusive enough.

So I’m a bit stuck on how to parse this particular example. Of course it’s good that people are given the chance to develop empathy! I’ve been teaching designers about presence and mindfulness (and will be doing so again later this year at UX Australia). Perhaps it’s just how the writer took something earnest and presented it out of context, thereby making it look ridiculous (in other words, like a scene from Silicon Valley).

I suppose things can be both wonderfully beneficial and hilariously ridiculous at the same time (see rock music or romance, for example). I’ve taught a lot of workshops where you if walked in without context you’d wonder what the hell is going on. I feel trepidation (because I can’t tell how whether this is authentic or just a put-on) but I really want to recognize this as a good thing.

On Huffington Post – An Interview with Steve Portigal

Check out An Interview with Steve Portigal

Q. What’s the difference between this type of research and something like focus groups?

A: When interviewing people we arrange to meet with them in their own context: at home, at work, at the park, in the car; wherever the thing we’re interested in is happening. We’ll be with them and maybe some of the other people you would find in those settings. People behave differently in their own environment and there are details of those environments that turn out to be relevant but we could never plan for. The organized pantry reveals something about how they approach the apps on their device, the room full of the father’s previous generations of PCs tells us about the son’s rejection not only of specific devices but also a whole approach to what it means to own devices.

Q: How important is empathy for organizations?

Empathy seems to be a hot term right now. Developing processes that include empathy is wonderful and it can really help teams rally around solving the problems that people have rather than the problems they want to work on. You hope that there’s an overlap but not always. Maybe this points to what school of innovation you’re from; you may want to be a few steps ahead of the people who will be your customers but you do need to be thinking about where they will be headed.

Empathy, meanwhile, is only the first step. Having a good sense of how people feel can instill the desire to do the right thing for them, but it doesn’t tell you what that right thing is. Empathy is not the same as understanding a highly nuanced, unarticulated, latent problem space. That’s the hard work.

Empathy begets empathy

interviewing-users

Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!



In Chapter 1, I argue that in addition to gaining valuable information through interviewing, the process also builds empathy which in turn increases our overall capacity for empathy.

Marc Maron (describing his journey with the WTF podcast), in this Rolling Stone interview, says the same thing in his own way.

But once I started talking to people, I evolved a capacity I never had before, which was to be an empathetic listener. I still step on people a lot, and I interrupt them with my own bullshit. But I was a better person. I was humbled.

Also0 see yesterday’s Maron example here.

Marta’s War Story: On confronting judgment

Marta Spurgeon plays the roles of design researcher, innovation capabilities consultant, and sometime photographer at Doblin in Chicago.

I was fresh out of the Peace Corps. Somehow, through an educational background in photography and videography and a unique set of personal contacts, I landed myself in a contracting gig at a design strategy firm. It turns out this was the perfect place for me. It makes sense that all roads led here, though I wouldn’t have been able to characterize it at the time. My experiences on that first project would solidify both my approach to ethnographic-style research and my interest in innovation in the business sector. The techniques and tasks associated with international development share some remarkable similarities with those we utilize in business innovation and design strategy.

In our Peace Corps training, we were encouraged to “do nothing” for the first 6 months of our service, to just sit with the host-country nationals in their day-to-day activities, observe, ask questions. And indeed, most of my Peace Corps experience was composed of these moments of quiet observation, learning about a culture so foreign to me as to ultimately challenge my beliefs about my own. Many of us are familiar with this participant-observer stance as one of the foundations of ethnographic study. It requires us to put aside pre-conceptions and biases, to embrace the other as a credible expert despite the legions of difference between us. In both international development occupations as well as strategic design efforts, this anthropological approach to learning about the people we’re designing for is the foundation of an often ambiguous process to create and launch new concepts that will be adopted by those-or people like those-whom we’ve studied, and ideally help them improve their lives.

Though I certainly had more casual experience doing this as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was on my first professional foray into ethnographic-style user research. Our team was learning about people’s experiences using medical devices in the home. At this point, we had spoken with a couple dozen medical practitioners in their professional settings and patients in their homes. We were on our final interview of the study. My role had been to photograph and video the interviews, take notes, and generally to follow the lead of my teammates who were directing the session. But for this final interview, my colleagues asked if I’d like to conduct the conversation, and I took them up on the opportunity to lead my first formal in-context interview.

We drove to a relatively remote location in Connecticut to see a middle class family of two parents and three boys. Two of the boys had an immune condition that required them to pump medication for one to two hours every two weeks. The parents had decided that rather than stigmatize or de-vitalize the process of the boys’ drug infusion, they would celebrate it by joining together as a family for a pizza party and movies on Friday night. This celebration was in full-swing as we entered their home.

It was a lively atmosphere. It turned out this wasn’t just a family of five; they lived with a menagerie of animals in their small home-cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, reptiles, and guinea pigs, bringing their total number to between 20 and 30 inhabitants. We were introduced to the guinea pigs and shown the rabbits. Everyone was supremely generous and inviting. They gave us a little tour, encouraged us to get comfortable offering us food and drink several times. Cats snuggled up beside us, intermittently disrupting our video equipment or the conversation, while birds squawked in the background. Comfortable and confident amongst one another, this family moved freely and raucously around me and my two colleagues, us all a bit squished onto too few pieces of furniture for all eight of us humans.

The parents graciously answered our questions about their children’s health and their medical needs, as the boys played video games and watched cartoons energetically, occasionally peppering the conversation with commentary or a boisterous request for attention-“Watch this! Watch!” They showed us how they hooked up the medication pumps, from prepping their sons’ skin to inserting the needles, demonstrating how it all worked. Father proudly brought out two large toolboxes full of medical supplies that they took along whenever they got in the car. He had come up with the idea of creating toolkits for the supplies they needed to be mobile. The interview continued successfully, if a bit disordered, given all the different activities happening. Not at any moment were they embarrassed or ashamed of the boys’ condition or the things they had to do to treat it. To them, this was just their life.

And when we finally all said goodbye, and the door shut behind us, I think all three of us researchers breathed a small sigh of relief. Truthfully, it had all been quite chaotic, though we had done our best to take it in stride. But our last interview was complete, and we got into the car, heading toward New York to fly home the next day.

Driving along, one of my teammates offhandedly said, “Well, I don’t think we learned anything useful from that. That scene was a complete mess! What a waste of time.” This somehow infuriated me. Sure it was intense, chaotic, indeed a less tidy environment than might be desired. They had more animal friends than a small farmer might. The lifestyle this family lived was obviously busy and disorganized. Certainly they had some health problems, probably some difficulty making ends meet, and a shortage of square footage for all of the living things in their home. But they also clearly loved one another and were just doing the best they could to live full, healthy, enjoyable lives. I may have been totally green and unfamiliar with utilizing this research practice for new business innovation, but I knew it wasn’t our place to judge, whether we approved of their lifestyle or not.

I was so angry. Never one to hold back, I told this teammate exactly what I thought. That these people had generously and openly invited us into their home so that we might learn about how they live, how they experience their medical conditions, how they interact with these essential medical devices. Whether we found their lifestyle appealing or disgusting, it was valid. Their experiences were real, and we were there to learn about them. It was unfair and totally inappropriate to judge them, and it missed the entire point of what we were there to do. I said all this, I’m sure, not nearly as eloquently as I say it now, and likely with less respect than my colleague deserved as he had more experience and knowledge on the subject than I did. He actually took it relatively well all things considered, and we remain friends today despite the words exchanged on that trip.

But I’ve found this to be one of the formative moments of my career-a moment when I expressed with passion and understanding just exactly what our purpose was there. And I’ve found similar sentiments coming to my lips again and again (with increasing grace and respect, of course), as I’ve had to remind most often clients but sometimes colleagues why we do this work. For an hour or two, we go into the home of a stranger, with a respect and appreciation for the validity of each individual’s experience. We must practice empathy, reserving judgment, allowing ourselves to stand in the other’s shoes, understand how he lives, why she does what she does, what they want to achieve, what makes that hard for them. So that in the end we might create better solutions that help them do it and make theirs and other people’s lives better and healthier. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves.

Sharon’s War Story: Broken Windows Theory

Sharon Cartwright, a consultant with Optimal Experience, shares her story about uncovering context.

We were surprised that Anna wasn’t at home when we arrived at her house. We could see through the lounge windows that the house was empty of furniture and personal belongings, adding further to the intrigue. We had followed our usual protocol of sending an email confirmation clearly stating the time of the research session and Anna had been called the day before to confirm.

We decided to try calling Anna. She picked up our call as she was coming up her driveway. She was running late and seemed a bit agitated, telling us that she had locked herself out an hour earlier. She was just moving into this house and didn’t have a spare key yet. She’d decided, in the interest of proceeding, that she was going to smash a window to get in and had just called around to her brother’s house to pick up the appropriate tools.

Anna seemed like a practical woman, and smashing her front door window didn’t seem to daunt her. I indicated that there was no need to take such drastic action for our sakes. But she was adamant and was soon taking a hammer to the glass panel in the kitchen door.

Once inside, Anna, myself and the client (who’d come along for the ride) began the clean-up. I manned the vacuum cleaner and mused over the start to the session. There is something bonding about a shared clean-up!

We were there to observe Anna set up wireless broadband. On a good day the process wasn’t straightforward; we had already seen several participants struggle through it. Over the next two hours we observed Anna encountering several technical issues with hardware and software. She managed to resolve some issues on her own. Many times she resorted to calling the contact centre, although their advice was mixed – sometimes helping Anna, sometimes complicating matters.

We had scheduled the session for 1.5 hours expecting this to be sufficient, but many sessions – including Anna’s – extended over this. After two hours Anna had not succeeded in setting up her wireless broadband connection. Unable to stay any longer, we were disappointed to leave without seeing Anna ultimately succeed. We wished her luck, as she was clearly going to need it.

During the two hours Anna revealed a few things to us. Her long-term relationship had recently ended, explaining her move to Auckland. She was also looking for work. Her ex-partner’s teenage son had generally taken the lead on the technology front in their home, and it was dawning on her that this was now her role.

With the significant life stresses she was facing it was hard to watch her struggle through a technology set-up that should have been easier, dare I say simple. While we learned that setting up wireless internet often happens during a time of stress, as it’s one task of many when you move house, I felt for Anna and the difficult time she was going through.

Dennis’s War Story: Negotiating between sympathy and empathy

Design researcher Dennis Nordstrom tells a story about his team’s own emotional journey as they find themselves face-to-face with someone else’s distress.

Whenever we conduct design research our aim is to gain empathy for our target audience. Through empathy we enable ourselves to bring together our imagination and creativity as a way to develop a better tomorrow.

This was exactly our goal when our team was designing for people who were chronically ill. We were conducting research in major US cities and we were about to finish up our interviews in Philadelphia. We were preparing ourselves for the next participant and knew from our recruiter that she was a woman in her early sixties living on her own. Everything else about her was for us to find out.

As we walked up to her door we were talking amongst ourselves about how inspiring it had been to actually meet all these participants, and to hear about how they had overcome the major life changes that came with being diagnosed with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions, or even chronic liver diseases.

We knocked on her door, and heard a voice behind the door invite us in. We walked inside and the first thing we noticed was the smell. It was extremely pungent, to say the least. It was the smell of old urine and vomit mixed with rotten wood and mildew. I saw a figure slowly emerging from the hall. Her arthritis was so awful that she could barely walk. Her dog was walking right next to her cane. It was an older dog, blind in one eye and with several teeth missing. It tried to bark at us, but the poor thing could barely make a sound. Besides the dog, our participant had about nine cats living in her house.

She came over and greeted us, and we introduced ourselves and thanked her for her hospitality. She offered us something to drink, but her condition was so bad that she needed help with getting the drinks out of her refrigerator and onto the table.

From the moment we sat down we had cats crawling all over us. They were extremely curious and wanted lots of attention. One cat even laid down flat on my notebook, so that I would pay attention to it. It became clear to us that all manual note taking was out of the question. None of us were able to write anything down.

We all sat there mesmerized as she told us her story. She was currently working as a part-time school teacher. She needed the health insurance and not working was unfortunately not an option for her. Over the last few years she had been diagnosed with arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Her arthritis had gotten quite severe, and she was often unable to do much around the house.

As we sat there listening to her I noticed a dry raspy sound. I looked to my side and saw that her dog was vomiting on the rug. Our participant paused and looked at her dog. She told us that as he has gotten older he had become incontinent and would often get sick as well. As soon as she said this, the smell made perfect sense. Due to her illness she was unable to clean up after her dog and cats, and over time it had all just been sitting there causing her rug and walls to slowly deteriorate.

I looked at my teammates and sympathy was written all over their faces. They felt for our participant. A few minutes later sympathy turned into empathy as she showed us some pictures hanging on her walls. One of the pictures showed her with some very official-looking people, in a very official-looking place. We were quite surprised when she told us that she used to be involved in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine during the seventies. With this realization of how this woman had not always been in pain and been unable to even get drinks out of her fridge came overwhelming feelings of empathy. She used to be a strong and assertive woman, who had had the misfortune of getting seriously ill.

At that moment it became perfectly clear: this was something that could happen to any one of us.

Our newly gained empathy became a powerful catalyst for design ideas, and for the rest of the project no team discussion happened without at least one mention of this woman.

Susan’s War Story: The trust dance

Ethnographer Susan Wilhite has a jangly impressionistic story about committing, body and soul, to her participant’s world.

Fieldwork in New York City, this time shadowing a Dominican guy in Queens. Tech-edgy and as proud of his gamer laptop as greasy dudes are about their hotrods. It was early July and I was there to get his story: the what, how, where, when and why – especially the why. The hacked, the black-marketed, the legacy and the shiny new, and all the numerous income streams. In New York, like everywhere, everyday life is all the drama you need.

First off, he had advised me to not stay in a crummy cockroach-infested hotel close to his place. No, I should stay in Manhattan and he would come get me, each and every day. And so he did. 9am, he is at my hotel lobby on the upper West Side to escort me on three subway lines and a bus. His place is his aunt’s and cousin’s house on a street Archie Bunker might have lived on. At 21 he is el hombre de la casa.

I see the situation right away – I need his cooperation if only to get back and forth every day and I can’t tell how long his reliability will last. He has not a clue what ethnography is. So I say to him: for the next three days you’re working for me. We’re pretending we’re making a documentary about you and your devices. We’ll talk and you show me stuff to illustrate your points. He buys it. We’re in business.

He makes a lanyard to wear my digital recorder around his neck, to better capture his comments over the loud air conditioner while he runs Lara Croft through a troublesome Tomb Raider level. We sit at the white wrought-iron patio table out back and discuss his take on every wireless access point in the neighborhood. He demonstrates how he invents ringtones in the front room to sell at one joint or another. He’s a boxer on the side – he knows people.

One morning he packs his virus-infested hotrod laptop and we head to Brooklyn. He’s talked his techie friend into occasionally wiping his hard drive. “Good as new”, he says. By this time I’m spending 7-something hours a day with him, and not every moment pertains to the research. In fact, it’s exhausting for us both to keep running in this acting out-demo mode. So it’s a relief to watch other parts of his life, which sometimes expose incidental intersections into the topic at hand. But on the way to Brooklyn he drops hints about how to walk and look at people to avoid unwanted attention.

His techie friend, it turns out, is less than thrilled about the risks of wiping a friend’s laptop hard drive. Maybe there’s even some unspoken debts and favors between them – I don’t know. I play along. The afternoon is getting long and the air is heavy – this is his mother’s house and the grand furniture and stuffed curio cabinet suggests it’s been in the family for a few generations.

Apparently the subject of our being there must be carefully broached. Veering into distracting topics gives the two parties a chance to modulate the tension. So they ask about me. They’re also looking for reasons to impart respect upon me and maybe be okay with my being female and older than them. I say more than is strictly professional but that was the point – they want to know I’m okay, I’m human, I’m not taking advantage of them. I can be trusted. A few revelations about my video game background convey cred that seems to lubricate the moment; I’m one of them, at least for now. Shortly thereafter it comes to light that while I am in no danger there’s something illegal about the hard drive wiping thing.

The trust dance subsides and now we huddle in a back room. A fluorescent bulb lights the scene and the New York Transit Authority roars outside the barred window now and again. What I witness is ripe stuff but being there, in that room, with these people, in that moment, is mildly warped. But this is the real deal, the reason we research. I avoid shooting the illegal parts even as I avoid endorsing their actions. I’m all objectivity on the inside and going partly native on the outside. Mission accomplished, the ‘high five’ is caught on camera, and my guy and I are outta there.

There are ethical lines in what ethnographers do. To be really committed it’s tough, though, to pull back, to play it safe. To be willing to seek humanity is to push boundaries.

I had meant to bring his gratuity with me on the last day and I just plain forgot. So his girlfriend comes along back to my hotel. As we ride I sense no distrust in my intentions but they are a little anxious. They watch as I sign the traveler’s checks at a grand old table off the lobby, and then they turn out toward a hot night in the vicinity of 89th and Amsterdam. Upstairs, after downloading the media, recharging batteries, and writing fieldnotes, it’s 10pm – time for dinner and a drink. It’s my birthday.

Observation and empathy

Here’s another proof point for the power of video in user research. Check out this very simple observational video.

If you didn’t watch it, it shows person after person stumbling on poorly designed stairs.

I don’t know about you but I felt increasingly emotional the more I watched this. A bubbling outrage and a sense that something so obviously needs to be done about this. Of course, this is a simple problem, which makes the failure to act even more aggravating.

The goal of user research isn’t always to uncover people’s fail states with the team’s existing products, but when it is, tools like video are impactful on rational and emotional levels.

Update: according to this Tweet, the stairway is now closed.

Priya’s War Story: Taking empathy to a whole new level

Design Researcher Priya Sohoni has a very personal experience in the field and reflects on the challenge in order to find deeper insight about her users.

I’ve never been too comfortable with hospital environments–the smells, sounds, sense of urgency–it makes me nervous. Yet, as an ethnographer should, I’ve attempted to conquer my queasiness and conduct research in medical facilities several times.

In October 2010, I was conducting research in a hospital in the SF Bay Area. I was almost 8 months pregnant with my first child. I was given a choice between spending a day in the ICU, emergency, or the maternity department. I picked maternity – I was excited to be among so many about-to-pop mothers and so many who had just delivered. I thought to myself that for the first time I wasn’t feeling so queasy, I could hear babies in nurseries, we shadowed some nurses as they took the babies for their first immunizations, observed visitors greeting happy families with flowers, balloons, gifts…it seemed so odd that this was a part of a “hospital” environment.

On one of the shadowing sessions, I sat in on a nurse shift change. The nurses went around the table sharing information about the newborns and their mothers and taking careful notes of the patients’ needs and requests. On one of the nurse’s share-outs, she turned to the nursing manager and said: “Baby girl in room 203, born vaginally at 8:02am, had trouble breathing, survived for 53 seconds and then died. Should I register her as a live birth or a still birth?” I felt as if someone had stabbed me in my stomach. So much pain that I clenched my tummy, sat down on the floor and broke into tears. I was expecting a baby girl too, in just over a month. Why was the nurse so unemotional around a baby’s death? The nursing manager noticed me sitting in the corner, brought me a glass of water and apologized that I had to sit through that. She suggested I take some rest in the nurses’ break room. But I wiped my tears away and stuck around.

In a few more minutes, the shift change was over and the nurses dispersed. The nurse from 203 then walked over to another room to check in on another Mother and her baby. I continued shadowing her. She entered the room with a big smile on her face, congratulated the parents and commented on what a beautiful baby they had. She changed the baby, swaddled her, gave the mom her meds and assured her that she could call for help whenever she felt like it. It then struck me that the nurse was concerned about her patients. Deeply concerned. She too had felt the pain that the family in room 203 had gone through. But she had made a commitment to hundreds of other patients, a commitment to take care of them and make them feel better. She could not have done that if she had carried the sorrow with her, out of room 203.

As ethnographers, we get trained to empathize with our respondents. To speak their language, to make them comfortable, to be one of them. I had just witnessed a remarkable new level of empathy that the nurse had. Where I had failed, she carried out each one of her roles with respect and propriety.

I went home that day with a new appreciation for the nursing profession.

ChittahChattah Quickies

Hollandia Produce Launches Squircle Packaging [The Packer] – I was thrilled to come across the term squircle the other day, in the context of this packaging redesign. Of course, Wikipedia has something to say about it and the name has found its way to content and design firms, too.

Hollandia Produce LLC is launching a clamshell redesign – called the Squircle – for its Living Butter Lettuce. The design incorporates features of both a square and a circle, optimizing space and enabling automated packaging systems. On the shipping side, it gives a 20% increase in units per pallet…Consumer and frequent-user focus group studies showed the new design maintains brand recognition while attracting first-time buyers.

Thirteen movie poster trends that are here to stay and what they say about their movies [Oh No They Didn’t!] – Compilations of visually similar, to put it gently, movie posters. In the way that the entertainment industry has created tropes within the content of the film that engage us in actively creating the plot at the same time as are following it, the marketing of film has established its own set of visual memes and cultural cues. Repetition and familiarity establish shorthand, and while we may decry the lack of originality, the predictability seems to work financially. Bonus from All This ChittahChattah years ago: Good ideas never go out of style.

Run For Your Life – Apparently all action heroes run through the same blue-lit, narrow alleyway when trying to escape/catch the bad guys. It’s also possible that graphic designers just re-use the same stock image of the running guy over and over again. The movies themselves are pretty similar to the Black/Orange ones except that all the explosions have been replaced with angst.

Hunk Gets Chunky: Personal Trainer Vows to Get Fat [ABC News] – While at one point in the article this is dismissed as a publicity stunt, the idea of producers experiencing what their consumers experience is compelling. From Black Like Me to Patricia Moore and now Fat Like Me. It seems unlikely that this trainer can replicate the motivational, cognitive, emotional, gustatory and many other issues that affect body image, diet, and exercise, but at least mechanically trying to lose weight as his clients are should be revelatory. I hope he does something with this experience.

The 32-year-old former underwear model has ballooned from about 180 pounds to 233 since last month. He has given himself until the end of March to get to his goal of 265 pounds, a weight he intends to keep for a few months. “A lot of my clients have been skipping classes,” he said of the motivation behind his burgeoning pudge. “I decided I really didn’t understand what they were feeling and their emotions.”

Dinosaur bones an untapped market for luxury set [SF Chronicle] – The recent story about the blinged-out iPad made with crushed dinosaur bones is obviously part of a larger trend towards dino luxe. I really love days when you can’t tell the real news from the fake news.

“Market value comes down to what a person is willing to shell out for a dinosaur,” says the 60-year-old dino dealer, who has been in the business since 1985, selling Jurassic ribs for $350 each, Cretaceous toes at $295 a digit and a 16-foot-long Camarasaurus tail for $20,000. Wall Street recognition will be fast and furious once he can supply the market with dinosaur genitalia, says Prandi…Hollywood stars Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2007 entered into a spirited bidding war at I.M. Chait auctioneers in Beverly Hills over who would go home with a 67 million-year-old T. rex skull. Cage’s $276,000 bid won the day. “Whether a Brontosaurus looks good in your salon is a matter of taste, Lajotte-Robaglia says, “but these customers are young wealthy people who grew up mesmerized by Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’ and find the aesthetics of a dinosaur more interesting than a Picasso.” Prandi says confirming a dinosaur’s provenance is just as tricky as verifying the authenticity of a work by the Spanish master. “A lot of people call me up from all over the country and say, ‘I found a dinosaur in my backyard,’ but it turns out to be a rock that looks like a dinosaur,” Prandi says. Even so, the United States remains the world leader in mining luxury dinosaurs.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Stereotyping people by favorite authors – In our Reading Ahead research, we heard about how people were both exploring and communicating identity through their choices of reading material. Identity is a complex internal and external mechanism, where we (explicitly or implicitly) project outwards to imagine how we might appear to others…an internal act that feels or draws from the external. So the existence of lists like this, while tongue-in-cheek, validate that this process is real.
    (via @kottke)
  • Scott Baldwin on the fine art of listening – Try changing how you listen. Try to capture the message (listen with your ears, mind, eyes and heart). Make eye contact, use an open posture and be attentive to body language, volume, tone and pace. Look deeper than just the meaning of the words and try to understand the reason, feelings or intent beyond the words. Be empathetic, objective and analytical.
  • An iPhone app for ethnography – Really? I haven't tried it but I am not encouraged by the description. What we're looking for doesn't always fit into predetermined categories (indeed, how are you to be innovative if the type of data you are gathering is already classifiable?) and there's a danger in conflating data with insights (or as the blogger here writes "outcomes"). Raw data is overwhelming and takes time and skill to process, if you want to find out anything new. Now, we spend a lot of our time just wrangling (copying, renaming, organizing, sharing, etc.) all sorts of data, so I'm up for tools that can help with that; but I think it's easy to go overboard and create tools for uninteresting – or unreliable – research results
  • Lisa Loeb Eyewear Collection – Not an SNL parody ad from 1997, it's a real product line for 2010 (via @CarlAlviani)

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