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Dear designer, take off your shoes

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How else will you put yourself in another’s?

Do you know the story of the man who wanted to sell his donkeys in a neighbouring village? Nervous about losing his donkeys, he decided to count them to ensure he still had all ten. He counted, but was shocked to find that he had only nine! In a state of panic, he jumped off the donkey he was riding, and looked frantically for the missing animal. Not spotting anything for as long as he could see, he was disappointed to have lost one animal, but when counting again, he was surprised to see he had all ten! He set off again, and after a few miles in, the incident repeated itself.

Two donkeys stand next to each other and look at the camera. There is a grassy field behind them.
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

This children’s counting story elicits laughter as soon as readers figure out that it was the donkey the man was sitting on that he kept missing. But what’s really funny is that we all are sitting on donkeys that we can’t see.

Our own donkeys

We all grow up with several biases. We have mental models which we have developed about almost everything in our lives. Everyone has, and there’s no avoiding it. It’s so important to our survival — if we had no heuristics or assumptions or mental shortcuts, we would have to go through life experiencing everything as if for the first time — imagine the cognitive and sensory load. Imagine thinking- will this next tile be able to hold my weight — every time you had to take a step in your own house? — it’s because we develop these assumptions (and no longer question ‘basics’) that we can process new information/stimuli.

But for as long as we don’t stop and acknowledge these behaviours and thought processes among ourselves, how can we try to be objective towards the experience of others? (Keeping in mind that they have mental models which they have formed to enable survival in different contexts?)

The image shows a diagram on black background, and uses the metaphor of light. Truth is shown as the origin point of light. There is a paper with a hole in the middle, which is labelled bias. The round spot of light is labelled perception.
Perception by Jack Butcher

The thing is, we can only experience an event, environment or situation from the lens of our own perception. This illustration by Jack Butcher (above) quite nails it. Even in day to day scenarios, we use metaphors because they help us convey and understand unfamiliar concepts, feelings, ideas in a way that’s more familiar and visceral to us. Even when hearing another’s side of the story we can only understand/empathise with aspects of them that we ourselves have experienced.

Donkeys and shoes
As designers, we employ the word ‘empathy’ more often than we employ empathy itself. Because empathy isn’t an easy task.

Ovetta Sampson, in her article has given form to thoughts and ideas I’ve had as a practising designer and UX researcher, but could not articulate. I’d recommend you check it out — it’s a long but interesting read and 100% worth it. In it, she has this metaphor that borders on poetry:

‘To put yourself in another’s shoes, you must first be able to take off your own’ — Ovetta Sampson

Closeup of a man tying shoelaces of a black sneaker.
Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

What does it mean to take off your shoes? And how can we do that?

It means: showing up to another person as a blank slate, to experience their experiences, and to do so as if doing so for the first time. This is an invaluable skill — not just as a UX researcher or designer, but also as a human — when you can show up with the intention to understand, and not to argue or reply, but just to listen, you become better at all your relationships.

But how can one actually do that?

I can’t say I’ve achieved ‘blank slate’ levels — and I don’t think it’s 100% possible by any human being. But it’s a goal that I strive to work towards — to become an absolute zero, to step outside myself and observe a situation as it is without filtering it through the lens of my own experience.

Meditation is the way

Obviously, the best way for this level of detachment is through regular mediation practise, which helps you identify that little gap between stimulus and response/interpretation, and then make a change. Over time it gets easier. Apps like headspace and balance provide that mental training to get you started with taking the reigns of your own mind.

But meditation is something I’ve started, and then stopped, multiple times. It is too passive for someone like me. I’m going to keep at it, but until then, there are other ways which have helped me step out of myself.

Reading

Reading is one such way. Real reading, in which you suspend your own beliefs for a time and get into the head of another, is transformative. You can brainwash yourself and start thinking differently. Here are two books that have helped me look at myself as an outsider:

  1. The Naked Ape — Desmond Morris: look at human behaviour from a evolutionary/ survival standpoint. This third person, detached approach is something you can incorporate even when you are involved in a situation. Step back from the moment, and describe the scene as a narrator. Don’t mention anything you can’t provide evidence for. Don’t mention feelings, address the physical changes in the body language etc.
  2. Deviate — Beau Lotto: Look critically at your own thoughts and realise how your brain fools you. How your perception is almost never the truth of the situation. The way that this book is written makes you look critically in all the ways that your brain fools you.
A bookshelf with two books. On the left is Deviate by Beau Lotto, on the right is The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

It’s not just non-fiction that will help though — reading fiction develops empathy too.

Identify your frame

Artistic illustration of an elephant and six men. The men are blindfolded, and each is touching a different part of the elephant.
Have you read the story of the blind men and the elephant? Each man, unable to see the entire elephant, bases his understanding of what an elephant is by the one part of the animal that he is able to see, and argues with others that their perspective is wrong.

Your frame is the perspective from which you see the world. The colour that adds a filter to the real picture, the part of the elephant that you have access to. When you identify the common patterns in your thinking, your biases and and shortcuts, you start to understand that what you understand comprehend may be different from reality. The more you identify patterns in your thought process, the more you will be able to question and and interrupt them. Break your patterns- it is next to impossible to be entirely neutral. But to be cognizant of your assumptions and ‘short cuts’ (things that seem obvious to you but aren’t to other people.

An illustrated, imaginary map with four points marked A, B, C, and D. There is an arrow that leads from A to B to C to D, and a direct arrow that leads from A to D.
‘Shortcuts’ is a word I use to mean things that aren’t obvious to other people as they are to you. From your experience, if you select Road A, you will reach point B, and then reach point C and ultimately end up at point D. If this happens often enough times in your life, you will start associating point A to point D. However, another person may not be able to make this correlation until he/she has been exposed to this path (whatever the metaphor)

Identifying your frame isn’t an easy or instant process, but there are ways you can begin.

Exercises

  1. Peeling
    In our masters programme, Strategic design management, we did an activity spanning a couple of weeks, called Peeling. It was an intense activity in which there were conflicts, arguments, vulnerabilities out in the open. Tears were shed and friendships deepened. You can do a milder version of this exercise with a friend (someone you are comfortable with) or a stranger if you are up for that. Ideally, you should have spent some time with the other before getting to the interesting part. After spending some time with each other, each person will have a record of the other person’s behaviour (which is easier to notice in another person than in yourself). You can start by asking about how their lives have been, their major influences, their childhood and any significant events. And then, you can start asking questions such as ‘Your body language changed when you were speaking to___, what do you feel about this person/why do you think you did that?’, or ‘I’ve noticed that you behave in this way under this particular circumstance’, or ‘You often apologise before saying a point’ etc. This makes you cognizant of your own behaviour which you may not have paid attention to, yourself’. Beware: this exercise can be difficult to do and process.
  2. Assumption roots
    This is a derivative of one of the exercises prescribed to me by my therapist to identify my self limiting beliefs, and it has helped me identify my own frame. List 10 beliefs you have about yourself, and then dig into how that belief was formed. List evidences that support your beliefs, and then list evidences that don’t. While doing this exercise, you will uncover incidents/past events/ people who deeply influenced you.
  3. Reflection
    After you commit an action, really go to the depth of why you took that action/had that reaction. Why did you feel the way you feel? Was it something you were expecting/not expecting? What does that tell you about what is important to you? When did this start becoming important to you? Does it have some level of ego/self esteem issues attached to it? The deeper you dig, and the more often you introspect, the better you will be able to understand your own decision making process.
  4. Observe your thoughts
    This is a more active form of the previous exercise. Before you can control and interrupt your thoughts, learn to notice them(like when meditating). You meet someone for the first time, record your thoughts: was my first reaction that this person is really nice? Or really bad? Every time you meet a new person, observe your thoughts. What does this tell you about how you view people in general? You can do this any moment of the day: Why did I not invite ____ into my house? Is that internalised casteism? Why do I feel uncomfortable letting my housemaid use my phone? Do I believe only literate/educated people can use it? Etc etc. Do I approach people from a certain level/viewpoint/mindset?
  5. Therapy
    The exercises above can be done by yourself, but it is a difficult journey to brave alone. Having a professional guide you in your approach is invaluable, especially as sometimes, observing your own mind and life story can be scary and overwhelming. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
  6. 100 questions
    This exercise from How to think like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb can help you see patterns in your thought process. It is perhaps the simplest exercise: Write down one hundred (100) questions. Do this in one sitting, without thinking too much about what you are asking or whether you have asked that before. Do not pause to think before you’ve got 100 questions, though you can write more if you want. Once done, ignore the first 15–20 questions (they will be the most obvious questions) and look at the rest: is there a topic that appears more often than others? Can you spot a theme?

End note

None of the above activities are quick fix solutions for empathy. Each take a lot of time and effort on your part. Vulnerability is part of the process, and if it is to be effective, the introspection will have you confront parts of yourself you would rather not acknowledge. Sustained exercises of looking at your own frame objectively will enable you to see your biases more clearly and separate yourself from them — to take off your shoes and maybe even wear someone else’s.


Dear designer, take off your shoes was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.