Empathy loves company
4 weeks have come and gone faster than I could have anticipated. When I was young, summers stretched so long, as if they’d never end. Days were like marathons of time, riding bikes until my blisters had blisters, endless energy, and not an actual care in the world aside from when “Paul” could come out and play.
Days now feel more like minutes, almost game show like. I have the anticipation through them that someone is going to sound an air horn or mash down on a buzzer, and then another page gets ripped off the calendar.
The last two weeks at Stanford have been spent doing a project entitled DP1, or Design/Development Project One.
DP1 entailed a sprint to skills. We were to identify, build, interview, unpack, formulate, unpack, design, build, interview, correlate and present. Or at least that’s how it felt. My other fellows and I got pushed to the edges of our learnings, carved some new chattels and definitely honed skills. The foremost of those was Empathy, followed closely behind by caffeine mastery.
Now, what do I mean when I say empathy in relation to design and research? Well, for me at least, I define it as being in the users experience. “Walking a mile in their shoes” is a little dramatic, and one can never actually achieve that, but you get where I’m going. Taking the time to really, deeply , listen and understand someones routine, and how what you are doing can enhance it or simply make it better. Alongside that testing assumptions you may have, or may be held universally, that could be dated or simply wrong.
It’s a wonderful set of tools that I’ve used before, but I’ve used them with an agenda, or a desired result. This is very different. Approaching someone with the simple want for them to share what a portion of their life looks like, without shaping their responses in any way.
I had a surreal moment during one of my interviews. It was like a highlight reel of all the people who had interviewed me during the last 5 years. I was laughing to myself understanding why they gave me the space to ramble at points, to fill the air, they wanted to glean that nugget that would give their story or research depth, and ultimately make it different.
But I wasn’t giving space for that reason, I wanted the same result, but I was looking for a different type of nugget. The one that may seem mundane or irrelevant in passing but held the glimmer into making things better, for someone with understanding of the field and topic. And they came out, sometimes 5 minutes in, sometimes an hour and sometimes after the fact in a follow up.
When you learn something the “right” way or a new skill, there is always the “Why haven’t I ALWAYS done it this way” remorse like moment. Or the classic “Imagine what I could have done if”, yep, that old chestnut, not helpful.
My last interview the day before presentation was with Heiri. I had been told about him from multiple people on the street, and that he was “The Man” in regards to the research I was doing. They were all right.
I met Heiri at a local coffee shop and within 5 minutes our interview had been completely hijacked by a shared passion and mutual experiences. Heiri (pronounced Hi Ree) has been doing outreach in the bay area since 1979. That’s right 37 years of working with the very populations I work to serve. He’s worked everywhere, in every position and I don’t mean that to take away the importance of each job, but there’s not enough space on Medium to unpack it all. I asked him how in the world he isn’t burnt out.
Working with marginalized populations can be very painful, especially to an empath which Heiri defines as. He lives by a very simple set of rules and he shared them with me. He works three, fourteen hour days and spends the rest of his time on his farm with his 3 dogs, 4 cats and hundreds of olive and pomegranate trees. He also has a specific guide for dealing with people. “ I will help anyone, but they have to meet me half way. If they won’t do that, I tell them politely not to waste my fucking time.” Sound harsh? It made me smile.
Heiri hasn’t walked away, he hasn’t gone burn out numb. He hasn’t stopped engaging or loving, or pushing for people that need him. He just has his set of rules for self preservation. Earlier that day he had helped a woman who had amassed 49 tickets for having a shopping cart with all her belongings, by getting all but one charge dropped. That one charge would help her get mental services help. He works the system. As we were speaking he had to take a call from a colleague, Joe. Heiri frustratedly said, “She’ll be dead in a week” and then as professionally as I’ve ever heard, supported Joe through a few more minutes with the promise of a follow up call.
A woman that Heiri has known for 29 years in the streets was evicted from her residence and had a laundry list of medical issues. She wouldn’t sign a lease for a room she had been in for years that stated she wouldn’t smoke. The building was under new management and they were making all the tenants sign these regardless of the current state of their leases. She said no, so was out, immediately falling Ill and now dying in the hospital. Heiri has kept her in stable housing since 1997. He hasn’t lost count of the people he has lost, he just doesn’t like to count them anymore.
Heiri took a deep breath and then said he had to go to a dinner at the Methodist Church. Every night he’s working he attends a church meal and sits with his clients. I asked him If i could come, without hesitation he said yes “You have to meet people in the places they are”. We went to dinner, talked with people, Heiri encyclopedically ran through their issues while we ate chicken legs and greens. Outbursts happened around us, nobody was phased, people were kind to each other for the most part. It felt like home.
Going in to DP1, I wanted to test one of the biggest insights I had captured from older data and assumptions. Do people want to share their data to achieve upward mobility?
Does “John” want to tell a service provider his details so he can properly receive help along with the things that he’s entitled to. Disability, pension, medical, all resulting in stronger financial standing. Does he want to connect via mobile to a community and to his people.
The results were rocky, but time was very limited. I did learn that people HAVE devices, or have had and lost them and they were very important to them. They had access to power, access to a safe space to use them. What I really learned is that I need to learn more. A lot more.
Heading in to DP2, I’m dedicating all of it to getting deeper with my users on both sides of my project. Service providers and people on the street. I’m going to spend long days and nights finding out everything I can and letting the interviews take me where they will. Both in dialogue and into physical space. I also deepened my love for all the Heiri’s of the world a lot, and whatever it is I’m building, it will be as much for them as the people they serve.