Tag: visualization

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.

art & designdesign thinking

The Science of Design Thinking

My colleague and design collaborator has proposed a way of viewing design thinking as something akin to a periodic table of elements. Beyond just posing a brilliant way of explicating and organizing the multiple facets of design thinking, Andrea Yip has shown the world that there is much we can learn from science, visualization and how they both apply to design. 

Last weekend a group of design thinkers got together to discuss the concept of design thinking and what it means. The conference, summarized in another post, explored the language of design thinking, the need for visual thinking, and the importance of understanding the context of design and design thinking.

While this was going on in Vancouver, another designer (my colleague, Andrea Yip) was back in Toronto taking these same ideas independently and transforming them into an organizational structure that should create much room for thought among those interested in design thinking. The model she has developed is one not based on areas that are familiar to design — architecture, art, graphic design, business strategy, or engineering — but science.

Designers often speak of a need for multidisciplinarity in their work. While laudable, this commonly refers to the inclusion of multiple perspectives on a design problems from within the broad field of design. It is indeed rare to find such multidisciplinary teams comprised of scientists. Andrea has turned that upside down by proposing a model of design thinking based on the periodic table of elements. The table, shown below, is a first draft, but a highly sophisticated one and something that ought to be taken seriously.

Periodic Table of Design (version 1.0) by Andrea L. Yip on DrawedIt

By using the structure and format of a bedrock of science, Andrea has shown that there are ways of thinking about design that transcend the boundaries that we often unconsciously bind around it. This new model inverses the terms posed by the creative arts or the applied disciplines of engineering or architecture, each that have made enormous contributions to the field, yet all rely on a level of subjectivity, and replaces them with a model based on a more universal language: science.

Science and design are uneasy partners. Some, like Nigel Cross, have pointed to the challenges with the use of terms design science and the science of design, while others, like Buckminster Fuller,  use the term design and science in ways that are open to challenge from those who identify as practicing scientists. Ms Yip, a designer trained in science (biology) and social science (health promotion) fields, sees things in ways that transcend these perspectives to propose using science as a guide to inform the way we understand design.

In doing so, she provides a bridge between the worlds of science, with its emphasis on evidence and strict adherence to protocols, and design, with its flexible, rapidly evolving, yet often non-specific methods. Indeed, Andrea’s blog showcases many examples of how design and fields like health promotion fit together and differ. It is time for both designers and scientists to listen more intently to this conversation.

By using methods, theories, analogies and conceptual models that extend our thinking beyond the realm of conventional design and science, we offer opportunities to make things better — and in doing so shape our world for the greatest benefit for us all.

Andrea’s blog is called Drawed and can be visited at: http://drawedit.wordpress.com/ . She welcomes feedback on her ideas.

And if the Periodic Table of Design is not enough, Andrea’s also developed a prototype set of trading cards based on the table for those more inclined to school-yard forms of collaborating around design that are also up on her blog.

For more dialogue on design thinking, stay tuned to this space and the Twitter feed @d_bracket for the upcoming launch of the Design Thinking Foundations project and corresponding site. And wouldn’t you know? Andrea Yip is the coordinator of that project.

complexityresearchsystems sciencesystems thinking

Mindful Systems


The benefits of standing still and looking around at the systems around us never cease to reveal themselves.

Mindfulness is something that is most often associated with individuals. Mindfulness is a pillar of Buddhist practice and is increasingly being used in clinical settings to help people deal with stress and pain.

Mindfulness sometimes get unfairly linked to individuals, groups and movements that, for lack of a better term, could be described as ‘flaky’. Its association with many spiritual movements can also be problematic for those who are looking for something more aligned with science and less about religion or spirituality. Yet, the spiritual and scientific benefits of mindfulness need not be incompatible. Google, while innovative and often unusual in the way it runs its business, is certainly not flaky. As a company, it understands the power of mindfulness and has hosted a few talks on its application to everyday life and its neuroscientific foundations and benefits. For companies like Google, promoting mindfulness yields health benefits to its individual staff members, but also to its bottom line because being mindful as a company allows them to see trends and the emergence of new patterns in how people use the Internet and search for information. Indeed, one could say that Google with its search engine and productivity tools could be the ultimate mindfulness company, aiding us to become aware of the world around us (on the Internet anyway).

We are often profoundly ignorant of the systems that we are a part of and while the idea of having us all sit and mediate might sound appealing (particularly those of us who could use a moment of peace!) it is not a reasonable proposition. One of the things that meditation does is enable the mediator to become aware of themselves and their surroundings often through a type of mental visualization. Visualization allows the observer to see the relationships between entities in a system, their proximity, and the extended relationships beyond themselves. In systems research and evaluation, this might be done through the application of social network analysis or a system dynamics model. Through these kinds of tools that allow us to enhance visualization potential of systems, this is almost akin to creating a mindful systems thinking tool.

My colleague Tim Huerta and I have been developing methods and strategies to incorporate social network analysis into organizational decision making and published a paper in 2006 on how this could be done to support the development of communities of practice in tobacco control.  I’m also working on creating a system dynamics model of the relationships within the gambling system in Ontario with David Korn and Jennifer Reynolds.

By creating visuals of what the system looks like consciousness raising takes place and the invisible connections become visible. And by making things visible the impact, reach, scope and potential opportunities for collaboration and action are made aware. And with awareness comes insight into the connections between actions and consequences (past, current and potential) and that allows us to strategize ways to minimize or amplify such effects as necessary.

design thinkingenvironmentpublic healthscience & technologysocial media

Amazing Stuff: November 6th Edition

A year ago something that truly is amazing happened: Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. This week there were some far less amazing things that I found — but some amazing stuff no less.

1. Wired Science published some of the newly released photos of islands from space. It is a stunning collection of visual images of our planet from thousands of metres into space. They provide a remarkable perspective on our world.

2. Are you better off owning a dog or a Toyota Land Cruiser in terms of the planet’s health? According to a New Scientist article published this week (and commented on in Fast Company) owning a pet might be worse for the environment than a gas guzzling SUV. True? It’s not clear, but it does provoke some interesting discussion on what really influences carbon emissions and the health of our world.

3. Visualization of data is one of the ways in which we can make complex information accessible to more people. A newly published TED talk by JoAnn Kuchera-Morin provides a stunning representation of some of the ways in which visualization tools can aid our understanding of our planet and our brain.

4. The New York Times has a new innovation portfolio site. For those interested in new ideas and design, this is a must-visit on the tour through the Internet.

5. Amazing or not, H1N1 is causing a lot of distress around the world. This week, Fast Company (their second mention this week!) reviewed some of the ways in which people can get on top of tracking and preventing the disease using iPhone apps. Mobile public health has never been so interesting.