The Challenges of Secondhand Empathy

Post by Michael Lindenberg and Guy Mordecai

blog2Part One by Michael Lindenberg

It turned out that going to Africa for nine days is only the start of developing the insights we feel we need to move forward in designing something helpful for Simeon.  Another problem confronted us on our return: How could Ramya and Michael share what they learned and felt and saw with Guy and Chi, who spent the week assessing analogous situations — from home.

It’s been a challenge, despite some very good conditions: Michael and Ramya, like the rest of the Sierra Leone team, had spent every night unpacking interviews, key moments and impressions to make them more easily relayed to the folks back home. Raw notes were kept and shared, and key insights were organized into documents that could also be shared.

And on their side, Guy and Chi came at it with fresh eyes and commitment to understand.

Two weeks in, and we’re all roughly on the same page. But trying to relay the experiences overseas in a way that both inspired and informed the other half of the team wasn’t as easy as it had seemed it would be. That’s an area we could use some advice and practice on in the future, and which other teams could profit from considering as they begin their design journeys.

Another related challenge — at least in Michael’s view  — has been the overwhelming amount of information the team brought back, and the limited amount of time to consider each piece. That kind of winnowing is always necessary, of course, but it might be that we’ve short-circuited some of our better potential users out of the plain fact that we had to make quick decisions and move on.

Going forward that will be something we’ll keep in mind as we develop our prototypes and get feedback. If we get stuck, we may want to go back and consider other potential users and make use of additional insights.

Part Two by Guy Mordecai

Just a day before our first session I watched “Blood Diamond” all over again. About 7 years ago I saw it for the first time and became inspired to visit Africa. I imagine how hard it must be to land in Sierra Leone and jump right into the hustle and bustle of Africa, and start figuring out who’s against who.

Doing the analogous work during the Spring Break certainly helped Chi Hung and I to understand the complexity and breadth of the challenge, and the multiple interests involved. The unpacking process wasn’t easy.  Ramya and Michael did an amazing job in Sierra Leone, and provided us with great documentation and thorough descriptions of the interviewees and interview settings and context.  However, I found it challenging to place ourselves in the village, trying to picture the Paramount Chief sitting in front of me, surrounded by a group of young, passionate Sierra Leoneans who are so excited to share their problems with us.  Each nuance matters, the intonation, body language, voice, behavior and content obviously. Empathy is created between people, in direct interactions.  It was easy to see the importance of being present in the field during our full-day workshop on 4/14.

Ramya and Michael identified the difficulty it posed Chi Hung and me, and were really patient in trying to be descriptive and willing to recover more details to help present a full picture.

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