Empathy and the constraints of services

This past weekend I visited Rome which by the way is always a wonderful city to visit, even in the winter. While roaming in it’s streets I had a great experience which reminded me of something Thomas Sutton said to us while working in the user experience design pill last month, there are some services that at first may seem awful, full of restrictions and emptied of good old logic, but the fact is that people use those services, and those same restrictions might be what constitutes the core of these services.

The particular experience took place in an trattoria at Trastevere, I was led by a journalist that claimed was one of the hidden pearls of Rome, where everything has already been discover by horde of tourist this place seemed to stay away of the multitude. While I was sitting waiting for food that seemed to take an eternity to be made, tables where flying over me to accommodate other patrons, forks and glasses where being removed of my table, and the entire menu keep being repeated over and over in the fastest Italian that I’ve ever heard.
Despite all this, I was truly amused as well as the Japanese couple beside me, it was as Patricia Austin said, during the PHD Design Festival, stepping into a story world where a whole narrative on the Italian way of cooking, eating and sharing was put into play in front of me, making me participant of this kinda of ritual. It was in a word, wonderful, plus the food was really good.
This got me thinking that my first impulse would be to fix the problems, improve the logistics, put someone in place that speaks perfectly english and by doing this I would completely ruined the experience for everyone. As Thomas pointed out we must be careful when designing services because we might interpret as an issue something that actually is part of the core of the service. This is a beautiful concept and sounds really great on paper, but in reality it takes a lot of empathy to discover that the noise, the hustle, the waiting time are all part of what makes the experience unforgettable, in a good sense.
As many other students in the design field I’ve been hearing on the importance of being empathic to the user, to the service provider, to the outsider, etc. But how one becomes empathic? We go to the toolkit and produce a persona or an ethnographic research tool, but at the end these are only tools and are as good as we ourselves are to interpret whatever might come out of them, so I researched a little and found an interesting article by Patrick Quattlebaum where he highlights empathy as an skill, which means that in order to be good at it one needs to practice a lot, and work on it every day. Good thing he offers some advice in ways to become more empathetic which include:

  1. Read. Not only theory books, read some good fiction. According to a recent study it turns out that you can become more empathetic in your daily basis if you read stories that can transport you into it’s world.
  2. Listen. Listen with the intent of understanding what the other person is saying, without trying to make a retort or analyze what they are saying, according to Rebecca Shafir you can learn to listen in this way through three steps, relaxation, focus and desire to learn another’s perspective.
  3. Be curious. Get out of the confort zone and try to deepen the understanding you have on others, that might be around you or might be very far away from you, little by little you would find out that it becomes easier to step in someone else’s shoes.

Overall, I find that Patrick advises are really pertinent and might help us to get more empathetic thus improving our approach to service design, read the whole article here.