Empathy and Mobile Development

Credit: Pixabay / techlec / 140 images
Credit: Pixabay / techlec / 140 images

One of the (many?) things my team may be tired of hearing from me is “empathy is part of our job”.

What do I mean by that? Well as mobile developers, we are the closest to the humans that use our product. We need to have empathy for our users – what do they need? What’s their experience?

For me empathy starts with a foundation of self-awareness and self-care. It’s a lot easier to consider other people’s needs when my own are being met.

Then, we can build on that with empathy for each other. If you can’t find it in you to connect on a human level with the teammate you work with every day, how do you find it in you to connect with the abstract idea of a human using your product?

What does this mean? Because honestly this phrase even for me invokes some nightmare scenarios of codependent emoting. But what I mean is the practise of seeing someone else’s perspective. Listening to each other. Valuing each other’s strengths, and not judging each other for our quirks.

We could start with a culture where we don’t blame, where instead we look at our processes and consider how they have contributed to the situation. Then, we improve our processes. Our “culture” is defined by our processes, afterall.

It’s a pyramid, and at the top is empathy for the user. We have to care about them. What they are trying to do, and in what situation, and on what device, they are trying to do it.

For me, the practise of empathy is mainly taking a moment to see the other side. But how do you do that for an abstract person? One example is that when I’m frustrated by fragmentation on Android, I remind myself that fragmentation is mainly a problem on lower-end devices, and as a result lower-income users. And then I feel a lot better about spending time on it. When I’m trying to prioritise anything to do with personal information I think about how upset I was when GMail changed my name and I couldn’t change it back and that reminds me how that would be even more upsetting for some other people.

Basically when I look at some large piece of engineering work and ask how important it is, I ask, who is it important to?

Thinking about this left me with one question – can you have empathy for the user if you don’t have empathy for your team-mates? Or, can you build a functional product without a functional team?

The conclusion I came to was that I think it’s possible, but I have never seen it. I think the answer as to why is that emotional energy is exhaustible, and if you spend it fighting for or defending yourself, there’s less of it when you need it to fight for, or defend, an abstract person you’ve never met.

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