Thursday, March 15, 2007

IDEO hires empathetic T-shaped people

My T-model for User Experience says you can't design a good user experience based on one specialism alone; you need knowledge of several related fields. It helps if all team members resemble this T-shape a bit, if they all have experience with -- and a feeling for -- more than one of the fields under the UX umbrella. Some of these fields require empathetic skills.

IDEO, a well-known design firm, realized this as well. So, in IDEO's 5-point design strategy plan as referenced in FastCompany's June 2005 edition, they say:
Step 2: Recruit T-Shaped People

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them "T-shaped people." They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T -- they're mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That's what you're after at this point -- patterns that yield ideas.
IDEO uses the term "empathy" where in the introduction to this post I use "have experience with" and "a feeling for".

Focusing on empathy, the plan says:
Regardless of whether your goal is to innovate around a product, service, or business opportunity, you get good insights by having an observant and empathetic view of the world. You can't just stand in your own shoes; you've got to be able to stand in the shoes of others. Empathy allows you to have original insights about the world. It also enables you to build better teams.
I am not entirely sure this kind of empathy is required from all team members. As long as they can work together with other team members, listen, agree on responsibilities, and work together to allow for a seamless experience, I am happy.

This is also why I don't necessarily see the following happen:
These teams operate in a highly experiential manner. You don't put them in bland conference rooms and ask them to generate great ideas. You send them out into the world, and they return with many artifacts -- notes, photos, maybe even recordings of what they've seen and heard. The walls of their project rooms are soon plastered with imagery, diagrams, flow charts, and other ephemera. The entire team is engaged in collective idea-making: They explore observations very quickly and build on one another's insights. In this way, they generate richer, stronger ideas that are hardwired to the marketplace, because all of their observations come directly from the real world.
Some members of the design team may follow this practice, but to force electrical engineers, software engineers and project managers to do the same seems over the top to me. There is a limit to how empathetic the team must be and I think the line is best drawn where user experience designers hand off to developers. But maybe IDEO's teams are made up of just those types of designers...

And speaking of empathy: How do you feel about this?


Anonymous Ruben Timmerman said...

It seems to me that IDEO is sketching the ideal dream scenario, partly PR story, partly reality.

I agree that this extreme empathy isn't needed, but want to add that all members should be empathetic in how they treat eachother. I sometimes find that it's hard for people to even accept someone else's vertical-T-part :) I think it's important to be able to say "OK, this is your main field of expertise, tell me whatever you feel is neccessary and I'll incorporate it in my part of the job, without being overly skeptical".

10:00 AM, March 19, 2007  
Blogger beep said...

Ruben is right. It may be helpful to discern two types of empathy: team-internal and external.

All team members must appreciate each others' contributions and, as I said, have a feeling for what the other accomplishes and how that is valuable to the team.

But only some members need to have empathy for end users, the people who will be using the system that the team is designing.

I think the second one is the original empathy that IDEO is talking about. I am not sure what the first type should be called...

11:18 AM, March 19, 2007  

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