Who Needs Empathy?

Who Needs Empathy?

Professionally, I advise C-level execs, designers, creatives and engineers, developers and account managers, on how to design Cyber Resilience Playbooks through understanding, defining and prioritizing the most critical components of their business technology, its infrastructure and all the rest of the hidden machinery behind this stuff that most of us take for granted. It’s an emotional journey for them, not unlike estate planning might be.

This new mindset, Cyber Resilience, accepts the notion that cybersecurity, or the illusion of it, has worn thin for industry pros and the average bear, alike. Thankfully. It’s time to face facts.

While continuing to support the concepts of defense, prevention, compliance, governance and all those great words, truth is cyber attacks will happen. How we plan for how to respond when they do is more important than the delusion that we can consistently prevent them.

For those who’ve already been reluctantly initiated into the club of survivors of cyber attack, they know even seemingly small events impact everyone’s future. Especially when something happens and they don’t have a plan. That’s the worst situation a business can be in today. Trying to figure out how your business technology works in the midst of a crisis? Not awesome.

What I do is a lot like estate planning. There is a huge human component to it, beyond the technical, which is simple in contrast to the complexities of people, their biases and feelings about how to protect what they’ve built.

Figuratively speaking, no one wants to think about who is going to take care of the dog if their plane goes down. It’s an emotional exercise for anyone to go through, considering the impact of events that can put their livelihoods, and those of their employees and clients, at risk. Honestly, cyber security pros haven’t made it easy for anyone. The tools, jargon and presentations leave most of us with our eyes glazed over. Cyber security has needed a UX renaissance for far too long. That’s where I come in.

I come away from each of these experiences humbled by what a tall order it is to nudge people, in general, to think in more empathetical ways, especially about complex things and also, when I am successful, how it opens doors like crazy. All over the place. People find more meaning in their work and generally feel elevated above so much fear and doubt. It is real work to get there, though, and open our minds to thinking in more empathetical ways.

These doors don’t ever stay open, either. They require the same level of nurturing and gentle-reign-holding each and every time I engage in these kinds of heavy conversations in order to guide the collective to better design decisions every day. Many opportunities to deliver the best solutions are still left on the table, missed for reasons out of my control, be it politics or someone who chooses to continue living in denial through a reluctance to face such tough scenarios and a “oh, it won’t happen to us” mentality.

Fortunately, it’s becoming less common but only in light of stories glaring us in the face by the mainstream media and these are on the rise.

common vision - empathyDelivering an experience that is tolerable and empowering in this context is not easy and is one of the greatest challenges I have ever been offered. Fortunately, my experience in building UX practices in agencies gives me a set of tools and strategies that help me as much as they can help my audiences. Truth is, cybersecurity is so challenging because the overall user experience sucks. The tools are too complex and boring to make them interesting. The people who work in cybersecurity are generally not engaging and speak in too much jargon. The don’t consider their audience. Cybersecurity needs better UX.

Successful UX design is more than simple user-advocacy. It is the elegant art (and science) of applying empathy into design, arguably one of the most malleable and intuitive of all human traits (in some) and yet one of the most elusive to find, generally speaking.

Just like combining the arts and sciences in any other practice, empathy may or may not be something we can foster or go to college to learn. Simply imagining ourselves as someone who is using a piece of software, for example, is not enough. Who are these people? What do they care about? What are they excited about? What do they fear? How can we best imagine ourselves as someone else? Well, it’s an art form, something that requires certain natural tendencies that can be supported in part by repeatable methods and friendly tools. You might say a quantitative sandwich is incomplete without some qualitative chips to go with it.

I was raised in a family of deeply empathetic people who were into cool stuff across the realms of art and engineering. They did not distinguish between art and engineering, partly out of sheer curiosity in the way they found connections and partly for a lack of formal training, which often dictates that we practice and think about each in isolation. As a direct result of their influence, art and engineering live and have always lived in harmony in the same room in my mind. One is often incomplete without the other.

Tandy TRS-80 Model 1Mom was a gifted musician who taught me to play multiple instruments and believed that technology was a tool that was only going to grow in its significance. It was because of her I grew up tinkering on computing platforms, such as Radio Shack’s TRS-80, Atari’s 1200XL, IBM’s PC/PCjr, Amiga, Commodore 64, MacIntosh, in addition to the available gaming platforms of the day. She was an artist, like Dad, in her mastery of music, thinking about the world, the future and its possibilities. These gifts of experience she gave me were well complemented by Dad.

Dad was an artist by passion, not profession. He was a gifted doodler and a natural born storyteller, able to walk into rooms and captivate the people in them, regardless of their backgrounds or ability levels. Always drawing simple sketches on napkins and a chalkboard in the garage, Dad was constantly making connections between things and people and seeing trends waaay ahead of the herd. In his free time, Dad restored vintage boats, bicycles, cars and motorcycles. He included me in each of his projects in intentional ways. He taught me the value (and fun) of being interested in and attempting to understand the hidden machinery behind things. Countless summer hours were spent sanding the teak and mahogany of vintage runabouts, applying 5-6-7-8 coats of varnish to near-perfect grain, helping disassemble or reassemble this engine or that and a lot of cleaning up. Dad insisted we always put things away “better than we found them.”

whitestripesFor Dad, restoring these artifacts was the art of asking good questions, learning to ask even better ones on-the-fly and sticking around for the complete and often highly-detailed answers. He was gifted at figuring things out, troubleshooting and applying a solutions-oriented approach to these challenges he created for himself. When he didn’t know something, he was arguably even more gifted at finding someone who did.

Here’s the thing: he was always honest about what he didn’t know. This is radical and goes against what a vast majority of humans generally tend to do: conceal what they do not know.

I spent mellow weekends sauntering around marinas near and far with Dad. Inevitably, we would discover a hidden workshop wherein someone true to the cause would be hard at work, solving some obscure challenge in isolation somehow related to his current restoration project. Pleasantly distracted by Dad’s authentic inquiries and astonishment, the occupants of said workshops were almost always happy to open their doors, share stories about their work and guide Dad in best practices from what they’d learned. It was easy to imagine these fellow craftsmen working so diligently, dedicated to their work, perhaps secretly waiting for someone like Dad to happen upon their small corner of the world to validate and exult the work they had been, up until that moment, toiling away at alone and thanklessly.

Hanging out with Dad, even standing in a dirty workshop in the dark, always led to the notion that somebody somewhere was busy doing something extraordinary.

None of that would have been possible without a couple key things: Dad’s obsessive interest and skill with art and engineering. And what was arguably his greatest gift: his capacity for empathy, which opened doors that would have otherwise remained closed and prevented him from realizing his objectives: learning and progressing.

All the while, it was understood between all of us – any and all attempts to do, make or fix anything were just exercises, not facts. It was okay to make mistakes because both of my parents, lacking formal training in any of their respective interests and pursuits, also counted failure as a part of their own process. That freed us up that way. More empathy.

Arguably, success of this kind seems to come from iterations of empathy as a practice – as a way of life, not just as a process of creation.

Largely because of that, I came to understand that, contrary to what I was being conditioned to believe in school, the worlds of art and design were not, in fact, incompatible with science and engineering and not exclusive to themselves at all. But in school, with few exceptions, they were treated as separate worlds, and they still generally are. My teachers told me that I had to get serious and focus on one or the other. Being forced to specialize fostered a deep appreciation for polymaths like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Bran Ferren – people who did exactly the opposite. Small discoveries like this led me to embrace art and engineering as one and motivated me to build my fluency in both worlds even more.

Gratefully, there seems to be a growing movement of applying empathy (also more stealthily called Human-Centered Design) into the design of solutions big and small, from the Squatty Potty to the smartphone. Soon the majority of people on the planet will have connectivity to the Internet and the idea of connecting everyone to both knowledge and each other will endure. The Internet is an interesting example. So is Toy Story – the first completely digital film that significantly grew our collective toolset for telling and distributing great stories.

Meanwhile (and here comes the real rant), the ingredients for the next marvels are all around us, waiting for people with vision, empathy, broad knowledge, multidisciplinary skills and intense passion to make dreams real. These people don’t spontaneously show up. They need nurturing and encouragement right from the start as little kids. We need to get out of their way and let them discover their identity and passions by encouraging them to work hard, trust their imaginations, foster trust in failure as a necessary part of any process, as a step towards success and to persevere. We have to make sure they believe that anything is possible and encourage them to find their own path, even if it’s very different from our own.

These are the actions that will nurture and grow empathy in future generations. We have lost so much so there’s no time to waste. Making more money, acting privileged and generally doing nothing won’t help. There are too many competing motivations to put our own interests ahead of others. Sometimes we need to put our own interests first. However, what studies are showing is that the more wealthy we become, the more we feel entitled to that wealth and the more priority we put on ourselves over others. Unchecked, this may be a survival-limiting decision.

It bears repeating how important it is to periodically pry our kids (and ourselves) away from our modern miracles, the computers, mobile phones, tablets and carry ourselves out into the sunlight to experience both the naturally engineered and designed wonders of our world, our planet and our civilization. If we don’t, our kids won’t understand what these precious things are that someday they will be responsible for protecting and improving. We need them to understand that art and design are not luxuries, nor are they incompatible with science and engineering, that blending them together with empathy in the rooms of our minds is required for more than just survival.

Like it or not, empathy is, in fact, essential to what makes this life, in and of itself, a miraculous achievement.