Tag: empathy

design thinkingpsychologyscience & technologysocial systems

The Disconnected Human

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In this mini-series we look at the phenomenon of paradox and some of the prominent ones in our social world. Today we look at human disconnection in the face of mass-urbanization, globalization, social media and information technology and why so many feel so isolated in a world pushing ever-more interconnection.

It is possible to have a wristwatch that is connected to a phone which also connects to your online social network platforms, a heart rate monitor, earphones and maybe even the appliances in your home. We do not lack for connections, but we do often lack connectedness.

As it turns out, connectedness matters. Laboratory and clinical research on addiction (summary), has suggested that it is as much a problem of social connection as biochemistry. Those who are socially isolated experience a higher degree of, and experience with, addiction. Loneliness, in psychological terms, refers to the absence of connection and communication with others and both negative affect and cognition resulting from this. Loneliness is not just a social issue, it gets under the skin  (pdf) with research pointing to pathways for harmful biochemical changes among those who are lonely.

Still, how is it that we are in an age of increasing global urbanization (pdf) whereby more people are living closer to each other, exposed to more people than ever before, and yet there is a parallel increase in loneliness? How can it be that we have more tools — ones that are mobile, instantaneous, and easy to use — that can share rich media with nearly everyone we know at nearly any time of day and still find ourselves isolated?

This paradox is all by design — whether intended or not.

Disconnecting the social graph: Facebook

Facebook is a classic example of how to design isolation into a tool aimed at promoting connection. Once a college tool for meeting and connecting friends, it now serves as a news media source, community organizing tool, general communication platform, organizational home page, text message system and photography album. It’s ever-changing, sophisticated algorithm ensures that every login to Facebook is different, aside from the current format of seeing top post followed immediately by an ad, the next top posts, more advertising, and so on. When you need to find something explicit, it’s very hard and that’s by design. The more connections you have, the harder it is to find material and maintain those connections without having to sift through material that, ironically, disconnects you from the purpose of your visit.

This all helps keep you on the site and coming back.

But this very aspect of having to come back frequently, to see different things each time, and to have to root through social and marketing ephemera to get to something that feels social is what isolates us. Yet, the intermittent reinforcement that comes when you log in and find just what you want the moment you open the screen is based on a crude, but powerful set of psycho-biological principles that anchor behaviour to the pleasurable feel of dopamine that rushes through the brain when you get that social media high. Add in everyday stress and the cortisol it releases and oxytocin hormone rush that come when we connect and you’ve got the perfect ghost-in-the-machine scenario to keep you locked on to this tool that offers you the hope of connection.

Now Facebook is aiming to integrate it into its other properties like Instagram and WhatsApp presumably to integrate this experience and your data along with it. This has the added benefit of Facebook of doing what other marketers already do and that is follow me everywhere I go on the Internet and reminding of me of more things to buy, consume and connect to, which will only add (paradoxically) to my sense of disconnection. Other social media platforms do this differently, but nearly all of them offer a variant of the same sort of stimuli aimed at keeping you posting pictures, exchanging messages, and sharing content.

Stimuli addiction

A powerful post by my friend, colleague and fellow designer, Medina Eve, wrote a deeply personal, provocative piece on living with ADD as an adult and the lost generation of souls who share her circumstances. Her brave, detailed story chronicles how she, like many young women in particular, have struggled with focus due to ADD and reaping the benefits that come with it, despite being an incredibly productive, intelligent, engaged person. Her story provides a first-person account of a social epidemic and paradox on how the ability to connect to so much means there is little ability to connect deeply to many of the things that matter and the incredible isolation that this engenders.

When the world offers too much to pay attention to (or filter through), we get too little in return.

ADD is at its core is an addiction to stimuli. It is the bodymind getting overwhelmed with the amount of stimulation we have around us which reduces our ability to filter, ignore and reject stimulation of various sorts coming at us. If you have any doubts about how much stimuli we are exposed to practice a mindful meditation where you aim to simply pay attention to what’s around you and what’s in your head. It can be remarkable that everyone doesn’t have it.

This is also a problem I’ve certainly battled and continue to battle with limited success and I am certainly not alone. This addition to the stimulation around us, particularly through socially-connected media and our explicit and ambient technologies that facilitate it all, is not only making us less connected, it’s also making us less human. And this is also by design.

Stimulation by Design

A look at the image below provides an illustration of how we design for stimulation. Imagine the holiday season and the Covent Garden Market in central London. All around there is music, food, bustling crowds doing holiday shopping and business, shopkeepers and buskers selling everything from entertainment to handbags to Lebanese street food, and the air filled with the scents of perfume, various cuisines from around the world, and an air of cedar from the holiday wreaths. All of this is lit up and decorated as the crowds jam through the stalls, eateries and cafes to take it all in. This is what Covent Garden wants and it is why people come from all over the world to take it all in. If there were no people, less ‘stuff’ and less activity it wouldn’t be attractive, which is why not all of London’s markets look like this.

But thankfully for us all, we can’t take Covent Garden with us. We have the option to disengage from it in a way we don’t with social technology.

coventgarden_snapseed

The Holiday Crowd at Covent Garden

What you will also see among this bustle are families walking together, friends gathering over a drink, and individuals roaming through the market, maybe even stopping to take a picture or two. For those who are enjoying this space, I suspect they are doing so because it’s special. While London is a very crowded, colourful city, it’s not this crowded or colourful all the time (although that is changing, too).

But what happens when the energy of the crowd and the space turn against us? Most of teh time, human beings adapt. I am sure if you were to bring someone from even 100 years ago they might break down at the experience of all this stimulation, because they aren’t used to it. Many of us are, or are we?

Social disconnection and its sequalae may be pointing to the paradox present in our question to create more stimulation and feedback opportunities by loosening our ability to connect to the very things that are at the heart of much of this stimulation: pleasure and the connection to our own humanity.

 

Giving up the Internet: A case study

Comedian Louis C.K. has a funny, poignant reflection on what we lose in this stimulated world during a guest spot on the Conan O’Brien show.

Kids don’t build empathy through interactions and building the ability to be yourself, with yourself; the kind of experiences you can only have without technology. What a powerful thought.

Louis C.K. was so concerned about what technology was doing not only to his kids, but himself that he ‘quit the Internet’ altogether as you can see in the segment below.

What Louis C.K did was design the conditions in which he used (or didn’t use) technology. His aim was to create, improve, and remedy the experiences he had with his children and found a way to do it. Aside from some tech support from his daughters he did this all alone. The reward was increased connection to his family, however what we don’t know was what cost there was in disconnecting. Maybe that cost was worth the doing.

 

Invisible problems, invisible solutions?

The point here is that design is often best when it’s invisible. It’s what makes the stimulation economy so insidious because it’s reach is everywhere, yet is often not noticed, thus making it a very successful design. The challenge, if we wish to channel the stimulation and influence what we have in our lives and to increase the connectedness in which this paradox of connecting tools present, is to design equally invisible solutions.

That is the focus of what is to come in this series along with a deeper exploration of connectedness and its shadow, loneliness.

Photo credits: Disconnect by Randy Heinitz used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing your work Randy.

Covent Garden at Christmas by the author

education & learningknowledge translationpsychologysystems thinking

Bullying, the market for education and the damaged quest for learning

Dark classroom, light minds

Dark classroom, light minds

A recent study found looked into the experience of cyberbullying by university professors at the hands of their students. This disturbing phenomenon points to much larger issues beyond mental health promotion and calls into question many of the assumptions we have about the systems we’ve designed to foster education and what it means to be a learner at university. 

The university is one of our oldest cultural institutions and its instructors are considered to have among societies most respected jobs, even if not always well compensated. In the past, students often approached their professors with a mixed sense of wonder, respect, curiosity and fear and that, in healthy situations, was reciprocated by faculty to create a space where people could explore ideas, learn, and challenge themselves and others to grow. That relationship has started to change as evidenced by the rise of cyberbullying in the classroom.

A recent article in Macleans Magazine looked at the changing state of the post-secondary classroom and the role of cyberbullying. Only this was not about student victims, but students as the perpetrators against their professors. The effects of cyberbullying are crippling and professors are bearing the burden of having hundreds of eyes watching them, writing about them and writing ‘consumer reviews’ about them in anonymous and sometimes unflattering, inflammatory and questionable terms on sites like RateMyProfessor.com .

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that as students age the incidence of face-to-face bullying decreases and cyberbullying increases, which might partly explain why we’re seeing this in university settings when face-to-face bullying goes subterranean. Yet, the notion that professors that are getting bullied by their students belies some other issues that require further investigation, namely those related to the nature of education and the role of students-as-consumers.

Consuming knowledge, producing expectations

If you pay for something, should you not expected to get something rather specific for that experience or product? Aside from some rare experiences of profane/profound personal challenge/punishment like Tough Mudder and its peers or dental work, there are few things we willingly pay for that we don’t derive pleasure from or achieve a very specific (anticipated) outcome.

Education is problematic because we might not know what we’ll get from it going in, what kind of experiences or ideas will emerge, and how our relationship to those experiences will change us. That is its great gift.

Many of us have had profound life changes because of something we experienced through our education and writing as one who has completed four different degree programs and a post-doc I can confidently say that I didn’t receive a lot of what I expected in any of those programs and I am a better person for it. Indeed, if I go to a specific learning event (aside from those focused on a specific technique or technology) I am disappointed if I actually come away with exactly what I expected.

That is part of the point. We don’t know what we don’t know.

But when you start viewing education as a thing that resembles any other market-driven product or services, you begin to focus on learning as a consumable good and your students as customers. In following this line of thought, it makes some sense to focus the delivery of this product on the desires of the consumer.

Increasingly, teachers (of various stripes) are being asked to consider a range of student-related variables in their education. Things like learning styles and preferences are now being woven into classroom instruction and students have come to learn to expect and are increasingly demanding to be taught in ways that match their unique learning preferences and styles. While there is reason to imagine that this approach is useful in stimulating engagement of students in the lessons, there is increasing evidence much of it does little to enhance actual learning. Many of the life lessons we’ve gained that shape what we do and who we are were not delivered in the manner of our choosing, conformed with our preferences and were not desired, expected or enjoyed in the moment. We risk confusing enjoyment with learning; they can be aligned but one isn’t necessary for the other to take place.

However, when we are viewing education from a consumer model, the specific outcomes become part of the contract. If I come to get a degree in X because I believe that the job market demands the skills and knowledge that X brings and I am paying tens of thousands of dollars and spending four or more years acquiring X then I feel entitled to expect all the benefits that X brings. Further, I expect that my journey to acquiring X will be enjoyable, because why would I spend more money than I’ve ever seen on something I don’t enjoy.

Particularly when that is money I don’t have.

A debt to pay

In Canada and the United States, student debt rates have dramatically increased. The Canadian Federation of Students note that Canadian’s attending post-secondary education now owe more than $15B to the Canadian federal government (PDF) as part of their student loan program, a number that doesn’t include debt accumulated from borrowing from banks, family, credit cards and other means. In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, the rate of graduate employment has decreased since 2001 and the overall youth unemployment rate continues to be the highest, despite the province having one of the most educated youth population in the country (and arguably, the world). And while Ontario universities continue to promote the fact that education is a better pathway to success, it is a hard pill for many students to swallow when many can’t apply what they trained for and paid for after they graduate.

Satirist John Oliver has an informative, humorous and distressing take on student debt and the state of consumer-oriented education for those who want to learn more.

None of these reasons are excuses for cyberbullying, but it does give a more complicated picture of those that might feel they are entitled to bully others and their reasoning behind it.

What we are seeing is a systems change in the way education is being produced, consumed and experienced. Even the mere fact that we can now reasonably use the language of consumerism to speak to something like education should give us pause and concern. I’ve been involved in post-secondary education for nearly 20 years and there has always been students who simply wanted the ‘piece of paper’ (degree) as a stepping stone to a job and little more than that from their time at school. They were willing to do the work — often the minimum possible — to graduate, but they knew they had to put the effort in to be successful. There was never an expectation that one was entitled to anything from going to school, although that might be changing.

Market identities and education systems

Belgian psychotherapist Paul Verhaeghe has explored the role of identity in market-based economies in his new book What About Me? In the book, Verhaeghe illustrates how we construct our identities as people drawing on the research that reflects (and often contradicts or obscures) the two major perspectives on personality and identity: the person-as-blank-slate and the person as a reflection of the environment. The former perspective assumes we come into the world as we are while the latter assumes the world makes us who we are and both have enormous amount of moral, cultural and evidentiary baggage attached to them.

What Verhaeghe does is point to the ways in which both have elements of truth to them, but that they are mediated by the manner in which we construct the very questions about who we are and what our purpose is. These questions are (for many cultural, historical, economic and political reasons that he elaborates on) frequently market-based. Thus, who we are is defined by what we do, what we own, what we produce, and how we use such things once out into the world and that the value that come with such ways of defining ourselves is considered self-evident. He makes a disturbing and convincing case when one stops to reflect on the way we think about how we think (metacognition + mindfulness) .

When viewed from the perspective of a market, knowledge and its products soon become the goal and not the journey. Indeed, I’ve even written about this in support of an argument for better research-to-action and knowledge translation. Much of the knowledge-to-action discourse is about viewing knowledge as a product even if the more progressive models also view this as part of a process and even more as part of a system. But it is the last part — the system — that we often give the shortest shrift to in our discussions. What Verhaeghe and others are doing is encouraging us to spend more time thinking about this and the potential outcomes that emerge from this line of thinking.

Unless we are willing to talk more about the systems we create to learn, explore and relate we will continue to support Verhaeghe’s thesis and uphold the conditions for the kind of education-as-a-product thinking that I suspect is contributing to students’ changing behaviour with their professors and creating a climate at universities that is toxic instead of inspiring.

Photo credit: Classroom by Esparta Palma used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Check out Esparta’s remarkable work here.

complexitydesign thinkingeducation & learningsystems thinking

Integrative Thinking And Empathy in Systems

Seeing What You're Reaching For And With

Seeing What You’re Reaching For And With

Award-winning Canadian author and University of Toronto professor David Gilmour came under social/media fire for comments made about his stance of only including male, middle-aged writers in his list of readings for his undergraduate English courses because that is the experience he resonates with most. Drawing on what you know is both wise and foolish when looking at it from the perspective of systems change and by looking within and beyond our own boundaries we can see how. 

Richard Katz knows what it is like to be an outsider and see the world from deep within and far from outside a culture. Katz, a former professor and elder with the First Nations University of Canada and Harvard-trained anthropologist, was one of the first non-native individuals to be welcomed into the lives of the Kalahari Ju|’hoansi peoples of central Africa. The Ju|’hoansi are known to Westerners as ‘the Bushmen‘ and were the ‘stars’ of the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. His journey and decades-long experience with these peoples are chronicled in two remarkable books on healing and culture.

Dr Katz worked closely with my undergraduate advisor and mentor, Dr. Mary Hampton, a remarkable community psychologist and her husband (and elder) Dr. Eber Hampton, and would occasionally come to meet and speak with us eager students and the healing communities in Regina, where I studied. In life, but particularly in working with affairs of the heart and soul (which is the stuff of healing and community), Katz would say:

Talk only of what you know

I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this when I heard it until much later in life. As one interested in the science as well as the art of healing I struggled to understand how we couldn’t speak of things unknown if we were seeking discovery — which is about making the unknown, known. Over time I came to ‘know’ more about what Katz meant:  that our perspective is one of many in a system and it is one, that if contemplated and welcomed with an open mind and heart, is valid and true while also being apart and unique. While we hold a stance those around you have their own perspective and stance that is both the same and different and in this lies the heart of healing.

Katz was trying to warn students and other researchers against the idea that we can just go into some place and ‘know it’ without being in it and that even in immersing ourselves in the worlds of others we are still but a traveller, just as they are in ours. He also suggested that we can’t know other systems without knowing our own (my words, not his).

It is the paradox that we can connect on a fundamental human level and still hold an independent, personal account. Being at one and apart at the same time. This is a hallmark feature of a complex system. It is also what makes integrative thinking and empathy so critical in such systems.

Knowing me, knowing you

This brings us back to professor Gilmour. Speaking to the online culture magazine Hazlitt, David Gilmour said that he doesn’t teach books written by women, just men. This has caused a predictable uproar in the social/ media (see Storify link below).

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Gilmour tried to clarify his comments:

“My only point is that I tend to teach people whose lives are close to my own,” said Gilmour, who has taught at the university for seven years. “I’m an old guy and I understand about old guys.”

On the surface, Gilmour is doing just what Dick Katz implored us all to do: speak of what you know. Gilmour knows ‘old guys’ (who are White and straight) and not women or other ‘groups’. He is being authentic and true to his experience.

What Gilmour is missing on this topic is the empathy that is so important in working with complexity. Teaching English to undergraduates might not be an obvious example of systems thinking and complexity, but it can be. As Gilmour points out, English is about a point of view, which is another way to say its about where you stand. The writing of the ‘old guys’ Gilmour includes in his courses are able telling a narrative from a point of view. That makes for good literature.

Yet, it is the reader’s ability to adopt, interpret, experience and critique the point of view of a story character that makes a literary work compelling. That is in large part about empathy. Great writers make empathy easy. By being empathic, we see a setting or context — a system — that might be unfamiliar to us in ways that seem familiar by bringing us momentarily into the world of the other. This familiarity allows us to draw on the experience we have in other settings and contexts and apply them to the new one.

To the degree this has harmony and congruence with the narrative being told is the measure of fit between data from one context to another.

This is what we do in systems work. For Gilmour, the complexity in his system comes not from his perspective, but that of his students. They are women, maybe GLBT, most certainly from other age and cultural groups and geographic contexts. Gilmour is asking his students to empathize with his ‘old guy’ narrative while forgetting that he can empathize with the narrative of someone who is Asian, queer, or speaks Catalan in drawing narratives that can be welcomed into the classroom without it being the perspective he’s most familiar with. Indeed, it is when we extend ourselves beyond the most familiar narratives to finding something resonant in other narratives that we learn, discover and innovate.

Integrative (Design) Thinking

Integrative thinking is a concept that Roger Martin, also from the University of Toronto, has made popular and integrated into the teaching at the Rotman School of Business. (Indeed, Rotman’s marketing material brands itself as providing “a new way to think”). This style of thinking, which Martin has written about extensively through his research on CEO decision making, has been closely linked with design thinking, which is also tied closely to thinking about systems. It is about holding different ideas together at the same time and building models of reality through the exploration of these opposable thoughts.

It is a vehicle for empathy to flow through connecting feelings and observations with thoughts and prototyping actions. This is ultimately what we do when we design for engagement in complex systems. We aim to place ourselves in the system we seek to influence, learn where we are in relation to the boundaries we see, set those boundaries (maintaining flexibility throughout) and then build mechanisms to get feedback and probe the culture we are a part of — organizationally, individually and so on — to enable us to take some action. This continues in an iterative manner throughout our engagement with the system.

Integrative thinking combined with empathy allows us to engage human systems we don’t fully know in a meaningful way that recognizes our limits — speaking to Katz’s point about ‘talking about what we know’ — while opening up possibilities for communion on issues of shared concern.

This means that we can know others, but also that we can only know them as ourselves. It also means that the systems change we seek in our social world is both an intensely personal journey and one that shares our common humanity, regardless of whether we are looking at shifting an organization, a community or a global culture.

Perhaps by taking a bigger view, professor Gilmour might find the same passion in literature that is from a different perspective and ultimately find how its also very much the same.

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationsystems thinking

Design Thinking, Design Making

Designing and thinking

Designing and thinking

Critics of design thinking suggest that it neglects the craft of products while advocates suggest that it extends itself beyond the traditional constraints of design’s focus on the brief. What separates the two are the implications associated with making something and the question: can we be good designer thinkers without being good design makers?

A review of the literature and discussions on design thinking finds a great deal of debate on whether it is a fad, a source of innovation salvation, or whether it is a term that fails to take the practice of design seriously.  While prototyping — and particularly rapid prototyping — is emphasized there is little attention to the manner in which that object is crafted. There are no standards of practice for design thinking and the myriad settings in which it could be applied — everything from business to education to the military to healthcare — indicate that there is unlikely to be a single model that fits. But should there be some form of standards?

While design thinking encourages prototyping there is remarkably little in the literature on the elements of design that focus on the made product. Unlike design where there is at least some sense of what makes a product good or not, there are no standards for what ought to emerge from design thinking. Dieter Rams, among the most vocal critics of the term design thinking, has written 10 principles for good design that can be applied to a designed product. These principles include a focus on innovation, sustainability, aesthetics, and usability.

These principles can be debated, but they at least offer something others can comment on or use as foil for critique. Design thinking lacks the same correlate. Is that a good (or necessary) thing?

Designing for process and outcome

Unlike design itself, design thinking is not tied to a particular product profile; it can be used to create physical products as easily as policies and programs. Design thinking is a process that is centred largely on complex, ambiguous problems where success has no pre-defined outcome and the journey has no set pathway. It is for this reason that concepts like best practices are inappropriate for use in design thinking and complex problem solving. Design thinking offers a great deal of conceptual freedom without the pressure to produce a specific outcome that might be proscribed by a design brief.

Yet, design thinking is not design. Certainly many designers draw on design thinking in their work, but there is no requirement to create products using that way of approaching design problems. Likewise, there is little demand for design thinking to produce products that would fit what Dieter Rams suggests are hallmark features of good design. Indeed, we can use design thinking to create many possible futures without a requirement to actually manifest any of them.

Design requires an outcome and one that can be judged by a client (or customer or user or donor) as satisfactory, exemplary or otherwise. While what is considered ‘good design’ might be debated, there is little debate that if a client does not like what is produced that product it is a failure on some level*. Yet, if design thinking produces a product (a design?), what is the source of the excellence or failure? And does it matter if anything is produced at all?

Herein lies a fundamental dilemma of design and design thinking: how do we know when we are doing good or great work?

Can we have good design thinking and poor design making?

The case of the military

Roger Martin, writing in Design Observer, highlighted how design thinking was being applied to the US Army through the adaptation of its Field Operations Manual. This new version was based on principles of complexity science and systems thinking, which encourage adaptive, responsive unit actions rather than relying solely on top-down directives. It was an innovative step and design thinking helped contribute to the development of this new Field Manual.

On discussing the process of developing the new manual (FM-05) Martin writes:

In the end, FM5-0 defines design as “a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them” (Page 3.1), which is a pretty good definition of design. Ancker and Flynn go on to argue that design “underpins the exercise of battle command within the operations process, guiding the iterative and often cyclic application of understanding, visualizing, and describing” and that it should be “practiced continuously throughout the operations process.” (p. 15-16)

The manual’s development involved design thinking and the process in which it is enacted is based on applying design thinking to field operations. As unseemly as it may be to some, the US Army’s application of design thinking is notable and something that can be learned from. But what is the outcome?

Does a design thinking soldier become better at killing their enemy? Or does their empathy for the situation — their colleagues, opponents and neutral parties — increase their sensitivities to the multiplicities of combat and treat it as a wicked problem? What is the outcome in which design thinking is contributing to and how can that be evaluated in its myriad consequences intended or otherwise? In the case of the US Army it might not be so clear.

Craft

One of terms conspicuously absent from the dialogue on design thinking is craft. In a series of interviews with professionals doing design thinking it was noted that those trained as designers — makers — often referred to ‘craft’ and ‘materials’ in describing design thinking. Those who were not designers, did not**. No assessment can be made about the quality of the design thinking that each participant did (that was out of scope of the study), but it is interesting to note how concepts traditionally associated with making — craft and materials and studios — do not have much parallel discussion in design thinking.

Should they?

One reason to consider craft is that it can be assessed with at least some independence. There is an ability to judge the quality of materials and the product integrity associated with a designed object according to some standards that can be applied somewhat consistently — if imperfectly — from reviewer to reviewer. For programs and policies, this could be done by looking at research evidence or through developmental evaluation of those products. Developmental design, an approach I’ve written about before, could be the means in which evaluation data, rapid prototyping, design excellence and evidence could come together to potentially create more robust design thinking products.

We have little correlates with design thinking assessment.

The danger with looking at evaluation and design thinking is falling into the trap of devising and applying rigid metrics, best practices and the like to domains of complexity (and where design thinking resides) where they tend to fail catastrophically. Yet, there is an equal danger that by not aspiring to vision what great design thinking looks like we produce results that not only fail (which is often a necessary and positive step in innovation if there is learning from it), but are true failures in the sense that they don’t produce excellent products. It is indeed possible to create highly collaborative, design thinking-inspired programs, policies and products that are dull, ineffective and uninspiring.

Where we go and how we get there is a problem for design and design thinking. Applying them both to each other might be a way to create the very products we seek.

* It is interesting to note that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1933 three-legged children’s stool has been considered both a design flop from a technical standpoint (it’s unstable given its three legs) and one of the biggest commercial successes for Artek, its manufacturer.

** The analysis of the findings of the project are still ongoing. Updates and results will be published on the Design Thinking Foundations project site in the coming months, where this post will be re-published.

psychologypublic healthresearch

Designing for Empathy and Health

Transparent Contemplation

Seeing Inside Others

When does common sense make little sense? How do we sense-make evidence when it seems to make little sense? The answers could lie in getting inside the heads of those we seek to influence and designing our communications for empathy and health.

Evidence in public / health

Last week there was a brief uproar in the mainstream media and on Twitter created by a tweet from Toronto Public Health to their Twitter followers suggesting they contact the producers of the TV show The View and protest their recent hiring of Jenny McCarthy a a co-host. Ms McCarthy is an outspoken critic of childhood vaccinations in spite of overwhelming evidence to show that they generate enormous benefits over the relative and small risk for many conditions and for promoting the falsified science used to prop up the myths that they cause autism (which is her primary concern).

That post led to much discussion, including posts on Censemaking and the Public Health and Social Media blog (reposted here) and Twitter on the challenges of communicating evidence, engaging the public, and the role of public health in these conversations. Watching comedy duo Penn & Teller offer a humourous if angry take on evidence for vaccinations and health might make the risks and benefits obvious, yet this isn’t the case. Why?

It turns out, that some of these supposed obvious connections still don’t impact those who support the anti-vaccination movement. Indeed, evidence from Australian researchers shows that engaging these audiences does relatively little to influence their behaviour. To some, they may be immune to the evidence (pardon the pun).

In a qualitative study of parents on their pro and anti-vaccination beliefs, the authors found a complex mix of beliefs that governed how information was received and processed. For example, expectations of guilt at the thought that a child would fall ill because of something that could have been prevented due to a vaccine or conversely due to a vaccine side-effect were prominent in the findings.

What arose in the dialogue arising from the Jenny McCarthy / Toronto Public Health flurry was familiar territory: health professionals using the moment to logically persuade the public to choose vaccination, hand-wringing over why people fail to believe evidence or why they believe celebrities, the awful use or mis-use of evidence in the media, and gasps of collective frustration at how out of sync public health is in its engagement with the public on these issues.

What was missing was empathy.

Stories trump evidence

The above quote has been uttered many times in public health circles when the use of evidence in health communication emerges in conversation. Journalists know this and that is why they tell stories in their reportage and not “just the facts”. All one needs is a story about the human experience on one side of an argument and all the evidence to suggest it is an anomaly or rare event gets covered over. It’s why we bristle at news stories of violent crimes  and fear for our safety despite wildly declining crime rates throughout countries in the ‘developed’ world.

A Problem of Perspective

Public health professionals — indeed all of us in any field — need to get out more. It’s easy to scoff at the ignorance of people when you have an advanced degree, spend great amounts of time contemplating or generating evidence, see the health effects of faulty reasoning firsthand, and associate with many others who share the same view. It’s obvious what the right course of action is.

But obvious is a matter of perspective. Health professionals tend to design their materials for themselves. Looking at much of what is developed for health promotion and communication with the public, we might make some assumptions:

  1. People are able to read and understand health related materials (and they like to read in the first place)
  2. They like printed materials and learn best from text
  3. They trust scientists, physicians and health professionals for information on health issues above all
  4. Health is something they think about a lot and always want to learn more about issues
  5. The public is invested in carefully weighing evidence claims to make the right choice
  6. Health behaviour change is a linear, knowledge-driven process

There are more, but let’s examine these briefly. I am not going to dive deeply into the evidence for each of these points (that is for another day) rather ask you to consider how true these are in your observations.

I Want to Believe

These are all assumptions and mostly based on a rational, linear model of decision making and behaviour. They are based on a model that correlates knowledge, expertise and authority and assumes that people respond to such authority. It emphasizes the use of media that is appropriate (and historically priviliged) for academic and technical communications, not public consumption.

On that last point, many educated professionals — particularly academics — are shocked to find people that neither need or want to read. Yet, we propel print materials and websites at people in text form to audiences that we imagine value the same things.

When you study health for a living or treat people with health problems you spend your entire day thinking about health. It may come as a surprise to realize that many others don’t really care much about their health until it’s compromised. They aren’t constantly mired in decisions about evidence, long-term implications of daily decisions, or the social determinants of their wellbeing. Health is just another thing to think about among many.

If we are to be better at communicating with our audiences, we need to empathize more and design our messages, media and services in ways that reflect the reality they perceive and the one they live in knowing that might not be the same thing and nor is it necessarily the same one we live in and perceive.

It also means confronting some big questions about what we are doing in the first place.

What is the destination and the journey we wish to take with the public? Do they want to take it with us in the first place? And if not, what might we do to inspire people to want what we have to offer — and do so in a manner that promotes what they want to accomplish, not just what we want them to.

This avoids us taking the approach to dealing with people who don’t speak our language by talking slower and louder as if they are deaf and stupid rather than unfamiliar with our native tongue.

This is the realm of design and empathic design thinking about communications and perhaps its time to start bringing more of it into our work. Maybe then we might not be so surprised when the obvious answers are no longer so.

Photos: Cameron Norman, Joe Ross (used under Creative Commons License via Flickr)

behaviour changecomplexitymarketingsystems thinking

Marketing Metaphors of Meaning in Complexity

Karl Heyden Eine interessante Geschichte

Metaphors and storytelling are ways to navigate through complex, inter-related ideas in a way that brings coherence and delight to them in narrative form. Stories are not just for children, but a serious tool for bringing complexity to life, making it accessible and usable to a world that can benefit from learning more about it.

Have you ever found yourself curled up in bed with a book that you can’t put down or found yourself up much later than you’d planned because of a TV program or movie you got caught up in? Ever have the same experience with a piece of academic writing? How about a technical report? I’ll bet the answer is yes to the former examples more than the latter (if there is a yes at all to the second two). Books — mostly, but not always, fiction books — magazine and newspaper, articles, poems and even blog posts thrive on a narrative that takes you a journey even if you don’t know the destination. That narrative, if its engaging, has consistency, a tone, a flow and a ‘texture’ that makes it enriching. It is perhaps the reason why so much scholarly writing is so dull: the texture is rather dry and lacks appeal.

Not all scientific articles require such appeal. Indeed, the standardized methods of reporting experiments can be very useful in interpreting results and deriving meaning from complicated interactions. Yet, this application of the standard model of writing from science to other areas is perhaps taking scholarly work to places it didn’t need to go. Or perhaps it is preventing us from going places we need to go.

In terms of complexity, one of those places it needs to go is into widespread discourse on public policy, health promotion, and social program planning. Storytelling and metaphors are one vehicle.

Making metaphors and embodied cognition

A recent Scientific American blog post by explored the role of metaphors in some depth, bringing attention to some of the early work of psycholinguist pioneers George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky in looking at the role of embodied cognition, a concept where a metaphor actually gets integrated into the body (literally or figuratively). In the column Samuel McNerny looks at the history of the idea and the use of metaphor, drawing on interviews, literature and recent research.

As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

Metaphors like “warming up” are therefore representations of real phenomena that become figurative in certain scenarios. McNerny adds:

The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward whilethinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

The challenge for complexity in social life is coming up with the right metaphor and finding one that is embodied within the systems we seek to influence.

Telling systems stories

One of the best examples of the use of storytelling and metaphors to explain complexity comes from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge with his humourous, insightful look at order and the art of organizing a children’s party.

What Snowden does is anchor something new (complexity) in a familiar frame of reference (a children’s party). While this is not something that directly translates to how we operate social organizations such as “warming up” does to explain relations between people, it offers something close.

Anchoring the novel in the familiar. Childhood is the one universal we adults all share. Travel the globe and watch children interact and you’ll see patterns repeated everywhere. Emotion is another universal: joy, fear, anger, contentment, curiosity, and such are all platforms that can be used to create and share stories about our world. For those of us working in communities, we need to understand what universals exist in those realms. This means paying deep attention to the systems we are a part of.

In short: systems thinkers may need to be participant observers to the systems they wish to influence and learn about the big and small things that drive them.

As systems are large, complicated and complex, it is unreasonable and perhaps impossible to know everything necessary to successfully navigate through it and maneuver the leverage points necessary to create responsible, sustained systems change. To do so, we need to enlist others and that means getting complexity into the minds of many operating in the system and not just a few ‘systems thinkers’.

We need to get better at telling stories and marketing metaphors of meaning.

Learning storytelling from marketers

Marketing is largely about identity and stories about identity. Marketers want to influence what you do (choose, use, purchase, etc..) and how you experience what you do when you do it. To do this, they know the importance of design and the stories to accompany that design. Design, when done well, is partly about creating empathy with those who are to benefit from the products of design and the best products out there are ones that apply empathy and guide behaviour at the same time. Steve Jobs and his design team led by Jonathan Ive were (are) famous for doing this at Apple.

In an earlier post I mentioned the work of Rory Sutherland and his discussion of tobacco use as an illustration of the ways in which failing to empathize with a product user’s life can change the impact of policies and programs aimed to improve it. The case (made in the video below) is that there are some real, tangible benefits to smoking that get ignored when we aim to snuff it out (bad pun intended). For public health to enhance its effectiveness, we need to pay attention to these benefits and find ways for people to derive them in healthier contexts.

But listen to what Sutherland says not only here, but in another of his TED talks he points to ways in which small changes can have enormous consequences if done in a systems-forward manner (my term, not his).

What Sutherland does is not just provide good ideas, but tells good stories. Like Dave Snowden, he captures our interest and makes us want to think about concepts like behavioural economics and marketing just as Snowden inspires thinking about the differences between order and chaos.

Not all of us can be great storytellers or funnymen (and women), but we need to take this seriously if we wish to use complexity and systems thinking to advance change in our world purposefully, because massive change is happening whether we want it or not. The key is whether we will be telling stories in the future of how we helped shepherd change that helped us be more resilient and thrive or let these forces shape us in ways that caused unnecessary problems. It is, as Bruce Mau said, not about the world of design, but the design of the world.

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingpsychologysocial systems

Empathy: The Ultimate Design + Systems Challenge

Empathy Empathy is a central feature of good human-centred design, yet is often practiced narrowly. Visualization with systems thinking and mindfulness are three additional features that can transform empathy from a simple tool to a vehicle for transformation by connecting us less to absolute problems and more to relative ones.

In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper online, the oft controversial columnist Margaret Wente offered an op-ed piece called I have ‘white people’s problems,’ and you probably do too. The column refers to an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter looking at how women today still struggle to be successful at work, family and personal life simultaneously. Both Wente and Slaughter take pains to point out that they lead privilidged lives, yet that privilige does not shield them from experiencing social problems in a way that is both unique to their situation and widely shared by women across the social spectrum.

A read of the comments for both articles shows how much of a hot-button issue this is for people (Wente’s article had more than 700 comments within hours of being uploaded) and includes much discussion of the racist/non-racist/classist over and undertones to the content and topic. It might be tempting to rush in and judge these two articles for dwelling on the pains of a privileged few in light of problems of poverty, food insecurity, safety, sexual and gender-based violence, and absence of healthcare experienced by the greater number of people on this earth.

Yet, if we look at the issues as they are with less judgement we can see the reaction to these articles less as a battle of ideas, but an unconscious attack on empathy. There is this perverse pleasure for some in pointing out the arrogance, ignorance, or neglectfulness in others, but such criticism (sometimes falsely veiled as critique or critical thinking) often fails to deeply connect to empathy beyond the pale.  How then do we promote empathy in such conditions?

Perspective Taking: It’s (Relative) Promise and Perils

As Micheal Marmot and others have shown consistently with evidence is that relative inequities, inequalities and health disparities are as significant or more so than absolute ones. Whatever challenges you face they are exacerbated by how you see yourself in relative position to those who deem closest to you. Saying: “it could be worse” works when you see your peers as worse off than you or your equal, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re surrounded by people you perceive to be in better shape. Thus, we have an issue that is both absolute and relative based on real and perceptive differences working simultaneously. In the case of Wente and Slaughter’s articles, most of us (the 95-99% not represented in these perspectives) see them to be in better shape and that has consequences for us and them.

 Peter Coleman and faculty at the International Project on Conflict and Complexity have looked at how relative position and empathy fit together in the context of peace-building and mediation and have found that there are spaces where taking into account the lives of others can increase conflict, not dampen it. Of the many examples cited in their work (including Coleman’s recent book) is a decade-long initiative to build bridges between anti-abortion and pro-life advocates in the Boston area and how efforts to build empathy between these two foes often served to antagonize and create bigger gaps in position rather than closing them. These problems, often seen as intractable, represent about 5% of all the ones we face, but their effect is enormous.

Recent studies in social psychology have confirmed that bridge building requires more than just seeing the other side, it requires being heard (PDF – Bruneau & Saxe (2012), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). A study by Kraus and colleagues (PDF) found that social distance can have an impact on the way that people empathize and the conclusions that they draw when trying to place themselves in the position of others.

Your Grief is Not the Same as My Grief

The above heading comes from a statement uttered in a group counselling context and has forever stuck in my head. It recognizes that we all experience things in a unique way, yet it was uttered in a spirit that suggests we can still come to share that experience in a manner that can build solidarity and connection.

This points to the ultimate design challenge: creating greater connection through empathy without widening social distance.

One might think this would be easier given that empathy is one of the principle tools of design, yet my experience suggests that designers  might be more apt to identify this as important and have strategies to get to it, there is still much to be done. But as we all design for ourselves and some of us for others, imagining another’s perspective requires understanding both that another perspective exists and where in relation that perspective sits to your own. It is here that we need more than an empathic lens or a design lens, but a systems lens as well.

Visualization: Placing Empathy

Systems thinking provides cognitive tools for understanding entire domains and the relationships within it. Systems mapping takes these ideas and makes them visual by providing an architecture for that understanding. Visualization provides the means to connect these two worlds by providing a design sensibility with a systems perspective. The figure below illustrates this position.

Mapping the positions held or visualizing them allows an idea to be represented in a manner that invites dialogue and open comparison. Rather than keeping one’s perspective locked within their own mind, a visual representation allows both the individual and those who they seek (or we seek) to build empathy with the tools to better frame the position each holds relative to one another. Doing so goes beyond imagining what it would be like to walk in anothers’ shoes and actually sees it and allows us to test assumptions.

From here, a contemplative approach to inquiry based on mindfulness can allow people to sit — literally or figuratively — with this data and envision the positions in new ways. Contemplating the meaning of what a particular perspective holds can enable a perspective taking that goes beyond seeing this head on and perhaps sees it from above, below, behind or inside and gets us away from our forward orientation bias.

By redefining the space in which the problem exists by literally creating that space on the page or screen we can better see beyond our current position to imagine how things previously deemed impossible might exist. Returning to the original example, this means seeing that one can hold much privilege and social advantage and experience the world in a manner that feels as violated, limiting and stressful as someone of lesser absolute means. It can also facilitate the reverse perspective. In doing so, this type of visualizing + empathy + contemplative inquiry has the means to take away much of the judgement and see things as they are without reducing or amplifying problems beyond their current context.

In doing so, perhaps we can better see us all as interconnected members of a system with pains and hurts and joys and skills rather than devote more energy that is necessary to judging others and less on making lives better for everyone.