Thursday, October 7, 2004

Empathy ≠ Reflexivity

Following up on yesterday's thoughts on reflexive design and some of the comments, I just read Design by Fire's really interesting Please make me think! Potential dangers in usability culture and the equally-interesting comments. (Thanks Fabio!)

[Aside: I hate pandering to the lowest common denominator. I think it lowers expectations, which subsequently lowers potential, which leaves us floating in a sea of mediocrity, and I don't think aspiring to mediocrity is a good thing.]

But to the point, the post and comments reminded me how empathy is often conflated with knowing your audience. While empathy certainly encourages us to be more aware of others in the design process, without reflexivity we are no more aware of ourselves - and that leaves out an integral part of social interaction.

The primary advantage of reflexivity is its ethics and politics - by denying design from nowhere, it demands accountability in the greatest sense. As Lucy Suchman points out in Located Accountabilities in Technology Production (pdf), accountable design involves:

1. Recognizing the various forms of visible and invisible work that make up the production/use of technical systems, locating ourselves within that extended web of connections, and taking responsibility for our participation;

2. Understanding technology use as the recontextualization of technologies designed at greater or lesser distances in some local site of practice;

3. Acknowledging and accepting the limited power of any actors or artifacts to control technology production/use;

4. Establishing new bases for technology integration, not in universal languages, but in partial translations;

5. Valuing heterogeneity in technical systems, achieved through practices of artful integration, over homogeneity and domination."


Peterme has a nice little post on the importance of ethnography in design research, and echoes something I have written about here many times. He says:

"I fear we're giving ethnography short shrift. We're cherry-picking a few methods, applying them in a rapid fashion, and patting ourselves on the back for 'understanding people' ... I think it's a shame that we study users for 2-3 weeks, get all pleased with ourselves, and move on. We ought to be cultivating relationships with our subjects, and engaging with them for weeks, months, even years ... "

In this case, something is clearly better than nothing, but one of the things I see as persistently absent in "design ethnography" is anything that resembles (critical) anthropological interpretation. What I mean is that data gathering methods, either short-term or long-term, are only as useful as the knowledge they produce. I don't mean to harp on this point, but again, what we're talking about here is that a broader understanding of context and a commitment to reflexive and ethical participation in the design process makes all the difference if we truly want to create technologies that honour the diversity and complexity of people's social and cultural experiences.


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