UIX: Empathy is essential to good design and modern technology

It was once rare that the fields of architecture, and more-so, digital architecture, and human emotion overlapped. But the intersection is crucial not only to the basis of good software, however, it's the foundation of good software companies. 
When Andy Van Solkema and his wife were designing a deck behind their Byron Center home a few summers ago, they knew they would need the right tools.

Some hammers, a post-hole digger, a level, and empathy, just to name a few.

It took more than architectural insight and carpentry skills to build a place the Van Solkemas could find comfort and joy in, day after day. It took a deep dive into their own personal history; their interests, frustrations, hopes, and dreams. They looked at three separate case studies in which the space would be used:
  • A relaxing afternoon alone.
  • A small family hangout.
  • A big party with friends and relatives.

In looking at the difference between the essentials in each situation, and redundancies, or noise, helped the VanSolkema's build, in the end, a deck "we were really proud of. It had a few flaws and areas we could improve, but that's what further iteration is about."

It was once rare that the fields of architecture, and more-so, digital architecture, and human emotion overlapped. But the intersection is crucial not only to the basis of good software, however, it's the foundation of good software companies. Technology and design organizations across West Michigan and the world are taking a more empathetic approach to their work, and starting off from their end users point of view, building products and systems that change lives instead of adding inessential frustration.

Now Visual Strategies and Design Leadership at Open Systems Technologies, Inc., Van Solkema applies empathy to his work every day. His company, Visualhero, was acquired by OST in 2016, adding a crucial piece to the West Side tech firm's tool kit. Van Solkema's creativity and design prowess is now being applied to the human-centered product strategies.

"As ubiquitous as the term 'design thinking' has become, the principles can be applied at every level of the process," Van Solkema says.

And through that process, from walking a mile in someone else's shoes, to defining a tool that would help guide them through pain points, to scaling that tool to a greater population, and incorporating a feedback loop into its delivery, life-changing ideas are brought to life.


Product development involves makers and testers, but the initial focus of human-centered design is well within the realm of anthropology.

Van Solkema and company begin projects through research and development of an end-user's persona, gathering any data available on the individual's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In design thinking programs around the world, the process is no different. Those with a product-focused aim may have a specific individual in mind, while a systems approach involves meeting and interviewing multiple people to begin to understand the problems they face.

A design thinking program led by Adam Weiler and Kirk Eklund, social enterprise leaders at the West Michigan Center For Arts and Technology, and the impetus behind Public Agency, brings together "Community Catalysts" in hopes of solving local problems. The most recent cohort saw a team of varied skills and backgrounds working closely with Assistant to the Grand Rapids City Manager Stacy Stout on the marketing and effectiveness of the Neighborhood Matching Fund.

Throughout the 3-Day Community Challenge, the team interviewed Stout and a number of others who had previously gone through the NMF application, and had their project volunteer hours and monetary budgets matched by the City of Grand Rapids. A majority of the first two days was spent on empathy, and discovering pain points applicants experienced within the system.
Community members use design thinking to create a better experience for those applying for the Neighborhood Matching Fund.

Emotional exploration is emphasized over solutions-based thinking, and any thread of a story is pulled on until it reveals further feeling, or opportunity to discover additional frustrations. A big part of empathy in product development is making the user the hero of the story that a product will help guide through difficulties.

On a level playing field, communication between interviewer and interviewee, or city and resident, or application and user, is richer with useful and actionable data. Immersion into another's life is much easier facilitated with an empathetic approach, and brings honest answers to the forefront.


"All the world is observable neutral facts," Weiler says, using a focusing tool called the "Ladder of Inference." "We select data to observe, add meanings, make assumptions, draw conclusions, adopt beliefs. And it's important to look at, to what extent are we adding our own interpretations?"

While the discovery stage of the process provides a wide open opportunity to gather data objectively, through definition, the information is concentrated.

"Design thinking expands and contracts at each stage," Van Solkema says. "But it is helpful in keeping the problems in focus."

Boundless curiosity, resilience and a sense of humor are essential, and concentrating on the process and not the product involves a variety of tools from many different disciplines. A look into IDEO's process, as Nightline's Ted Koppel covered in 1999, saw one of the world's most innovative product design firms incorporating designers, engineers, marketing experts, even linguists and psychologists into product development.

In present day Grand Rapids, the fields of art, technology, human resources, corporate leadership, and education are applying the same principles into guiding the city's Neighborhood Matching Fund to sustainable success.

Expansionary stages, like empathy and ideation, allow for "big, wild, fantastic, visionary" ideas, Weiler says, while keeping the problem in view. Contracting stages, in definition, a prototyping a user-based solution, focus the energy of the team. And not unlike the properties of the physical world, contracting situations in the process of design thinking can lend participant emotions to flare up under pressure.

It's important to keep a sense of humor, and one of the most useful tools at this stage is unabashedly lifted from improv comedy. Ideas aren't squelched or silenced, they're improved upon and amended with a affirmative "Yes, and..."
With design thinking, no idea is a bad idea.

There is progress to be found in conflict, but practitioners of design thinking need to be mindful of their own behavior, as well as the users they are focused on.

Authors like Edward DiBono, Gary Klein, and Clayton Christensen are heralded as established thought leaders in the world of design thinking, and dissertations on the topic are in no short supply, but no matter the source, it's clear the process has its moments of introspection as well as external action.

Empathetic thought processes can be applied to understanding problems in our own lives, some perhaps never considered.

Zach Dennis, Software Craftsman and Co-Founder of Mutually Human, played a crucial role in the founding of his company, and in experiencing some serious frustration in his work/life balance helped further mold the corporate culture there.


In discovering and developing his own career, Dennis was forced to make a number of tough decisions in the same process of expansion and contraction empathetic design is based on.

A curious appreciation for technology got Dennis in big trouble halfway through his high school years, but the network administrator noticed more talent than malice in his ability to navigate the school's computer system, and soon took him under his wing.

As more programming opportunities opened up for Dennis, he took them all on with aplomb. Growth and success in the field allowed him to hire a few employees, but his own workload continued to expand, as well.

"I started working a lot," Dennis says. "I was going from a typical 40 hour week to a 60 to 70 hours a week. My employer was not incentivized to improve how we did things, but I was. I wanted to get better at it."
Zach Dennis

Dennis expanded his portfolio, and his family. Subsequently, the convergence of responsibilities brought a glaring pain point to the surface. Like testing a prototype in the design thinking process, Dennis soon realized an inconsistency in his career aspirations.

"I made a stupid mistake and stayed to work over Christmas one year," he says. "We had just gotten married that year, my wife's family has a big get-together in Wisconsin, and we missed it because I felt obligated to work. We stayed back and missed it and that's been the biggest regret of my adult life."

That was when he realized there was a better way of working.

"I should be able to be proud of not only what I make but how I make it," Dennis says. "I shouldn't be in a position to miss an important day."

Along with Mark Van Holstyn and a handful of supporting minds between Grand Rapids and Columbus, Ohio, Dennis has been leading Mutually Human through digital application development since 2008. He says the company's goal has never been to amass an empire, but simply to insure the quality of life for customers and team members.

"Working with us should be painless," he says. "My work should make sure that my customers are going home on time and seeing their kids. they're not getting 2 a.m. calls because I did a bad job. At the same time, my people know that we're doing good quality work. We're not asking them to work weekends or work nights; that’s just not something we do."

Shorter project timelines, more intimate conversations with clients, and deeper dives into the lives of end-users have increased Mutually Human's win rate with new proposals, Dennis says, and improved the quality of their work.


Empathy applied to design is irrelevant if the final product isn't focused on the right user, or the right problem. As Albert Einstein once said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution."

So, what if one had 3 days, or 3 years?

When designing the wide grip of a potato peeler to accommodate his wife's arthritic hands, OXO founder Sam Farber reached a much wider demographic than he would have had he stuck with the prevailing models of the time. When designing the story behind Apple, Steve Jobs pulled the emotional thread of millions, offering a way for them to experience freedom and "Think Different," as they entered Apple Stores bathed in a new, clean and crisp environment seeking the world’s most user-friendly devices. Even after his passing, empathy is still championed in Cupertino, as tear-inducing Christmas commercials clearly point out.

Whether physical or digital, product-based or a systems approach, elements imbued with an empathetic approach simply resonate more with users, and only strengthen the notion that human interaction should be at the core of design.

Empathy requires a beginner's mindset and curiosity above close-mindedness. We all lead different lives, offer different expertise, and all have something to learn from each other.

When those stories are explored and appreciated, new ideas are designed, and lives are changed.

Photography by Steph Harding.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
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