“Before I became a UX [user experience] architect, I compartmentalized my life. I saw everything in black and white,” writes Ben Lynch, my wife’s colleague at Hanson Inc., a digital agency in Maumee, Ohio.
And now? Now he realizes that his “perceptions are not always the same thing as reality.”
What strikes me about Lynch’s post is the level of self-awareness found in what might be (for some) just a day job. Given the nature of his work — that of putting himself in the shoes of users, learning how they think, and how to improve their digital experience — it makes sense.
We might expect empathetic moments to occur with those who are more like us. A recent study at the University of Virginia, for example, suggests that human beings empathize more with those who are closer to them personally, such as a friend or spouse. According to the results of MRI brain scans done by the study, this is because the participants tended to see these individuals as part of themselves. When participants viewed mild electric shocks delivered to a friend or spouse, the same regions of their brain were activated as when they received the shocks themselves. Their brains, however, did not light up in the same way when it came to strangers being shocked.
But how do you learn to see the world through the eyes of those individuals for whom you are not personally invested? It requires a shared experience.
According to another recent study by Stanford psychologists, for example, participation in another racial or ethnic group’s cultural activity can “improve intergroup attitudes” long-term. Studying how bias is overcome between individuals is a common practice, but this group-bias study showed that “cultural behaviors, ideas and practices that are often a source of pride and self-meaning for a group can play a role in improving intergroup outcomes.” In that study, the shared activity of creating a music video for a Mexican pop band provided lasting racial and ethnic bias-reduction.
While not exactly like the Stanford study, Lynch’s work — which requires team collaboration and testing digital environments to understand the user experience (likes, frustrations, expectations) — allows him to participate in the worlds of others. He is able to better “realize where other people are coming from, and why.” The repetition of “performing user testing” shows him “that what one person believes to be extremely clear is routinely misinterpreted by another,” and to “see all the gray that exists in the world,” even embracing it.
It is human to fortify ourselves behind our biases and to insist that only our way of seeing things is correct. While not every idea or perspective held by every individual is equal or worthy of the same deference, the possibility of never-knowing for certain their value is made easy by dismissing others entirely.
(It is hard to step into another person’s shoes, after all, when you’ve double-laced and duct-taped yours to your feet.)
A paradigm-shifting moment — that phenomena that changes the way one views the world because he or she is forced by life to see it through another’s eyes — is golden. This is not to say that we would all instantly identify others as extensions of ourselves (as in the first study) or that perfect agreement could be found. (The world would be boring if we all agreed.) It is to say, however, that we might demonize others less, cooperate more, and perhaps improve our own humanity.
Ben Lynch’s venture into the user’s experience, after all, became an opportunity for a better human experience.