XOXO Fest

I recently attended XOXO, an independent art and technology conference in Portland, OR, and came back with ideas on designing more empathetic experiences in the things we create. I’m collecting my thoughts in a series of posts which can be found along with my overall impressions of the event. One of the main themes throughout this year’s XOXO was empathy, specifically how we can be more empathetic as creators and be more responsible when we release the products of our work into the world.

In my first post about XOXO, I briefly described Amit Gupta’s moving talk about his decision to sell Photojojo, a successful company that he loved being a part of, after being diagnosed with leukemia and beating his incredible odds of surviving.

“…I found out that if I had a perfectly matched stem cell donor, perfectly matched stem cells, the operation went perfectly, everything was perfect, I had 50/50 odds of surviving five years. And without a transplant, the odds were not good.

And the odds of finding this perfect match were about one in 20,000.”
-Amit Gupta

With the help of his friends he found his perfect match and with the help of his doctors and their care he was able to recover, to share his experience with us at XOXO and the things he has learned from it since.

“I can tell you the story doesn’t always end the way you think it’s going to, sometimes you find the work that you’ve always wanted to do and you’re doing it with the people you’ve always dreamed of working with, and you still have to let it go. And it’s okay.

And I can tell you if your work is important to you, and I think for a lot of people in this room it probably is, that you’ve got to plan for the day that you’re not going to be able to do it anymore.”
-Amit Gupta

The day we’re not going to be able to do it anymore may come for any number of reasons. Even if we aren’t running a company or responsible for people’s livelihoods we should have a plan for when we may no longer be involved with our work. Besides just making it so that your work is able to exist without you, it’s also important to think about the impact that our creations have on their users after we are no longer involved.

Kathy Sierra employs the word ‘users’ “very consciously” and in her talk at XOXO she described why.

“And yes, I do use the word users.

I use it very consciously.

I will always use it because it focuses us on the fact that we’re making something for people that should be useful and usable.

But they are using it for some context that has nothing to do with just appreciating our awesome thing.”
-Kathy Sierra

In the same way that artists aren’t directly in control of the emotions of those that engage with their work, we can’t really control of the experience of our users. We design something that we hope elicits an experience and outcome we want, and also hopefully reflects our values as well. When we design for “perfect users with perfect lives” or even just for people exclusively like ourselves, we are designing an experience that excludes and sends a message of indifference.

In her article for Model View Culture, Transitioning in the Digital Age, Jessica Lacunal talks about her options in how to deal with that on social media. She describes what she felt were her choices when it came to Facebook: “…start a whole new profile, juggling two online identities while trying to keep worlds from colliding, or go back over my entire online profile and change or delete any overt mention of who I used to be. Being the proactive person I was, I opted for the latter. And I thought I did a great job. But I was wrong.”

Jessica’s article describes being accidentally “Outed By Facebook” and the Look Back feature, with it including photos she had removed from her profile. At the time, she had no way to edit the resulting video to remove the photos. Facebook has since made the Look Back videos editable, and she gives them credit for that as well as other features like inclusive gender options for profiles on the site. Still, she describes the attempts to manage her online profiles and information about her life as “exhausting.”

“Removing friction” is often seen as an overriding directive in our designs in an effort to increase metrics of some kind or another. On their blog InVision talks about this and 3 ways friction can improve your UX. Adding friction can be a way of building thoughtfulness about the circumstances in your users’ lives into your creations as well.

Adding a moment before bringing old memories to the forefront again gives users time to think about what may come up on their own. It can build suspense to a pleasant surprise, or let people mentally prepare for what may be a difficult, but needed reminder of one of life’s less perfect moments. I think we like to exercise our memories, part of the reason trivia games are popular and why we reach to remember facts on our own before reaching for the pocket-sized devices we carry with access to a world of information.

When I transitioned, I went so far as to set my Facebook account for deletion and then delete my randomly generated password from my password manager, a temptation-proof way to beat Facebook’s grace period during which signing back in cancels the deletion. I didn’t want to have the kind of experience that Jessica Lacunal had, and the exhausting effort of separating the people in this new part of my life from chapters that have come to a close. As a result, I had to ask other people how things like Look Back and TimeHop function and what the experience is like.

Not many had particularly good experiences. Not many had particularly bad experiences either. We mostly just ended up talking about how we do remember these things, how we deal with and accept them, why we move on from different people, places, and things throughout our lives. We usually write software to help our memory, personally or collectively, but not to help with these other, more difficult things, or to let these things happen naturally online.

Veronica Belmont spoke at XOXO about her own encounter with the “new invincible and perfect memory that exists on the Internet” and what she calls her “Internet cockroach.”

“It can’t die, it can’t be deleted, it can’t be reasoned with. It’s this thing that exists on the internet forever. So every time I launch a new show, a new product, do an interview, talk to someone online, there she is, the GIF from seven years ago. Proudly shaking her wares.”
-Veronica Belmont

Veronica also shared what she found may be another case for “adding friction” to the experiences we design for users.

“This is a great quote I found in Psychology Today when I was working on this presentation. I’m not going to try to read it, it’s very large.

You can read that first part.

But what I wanted you to focus on, because I can’t pronounce ‘submarginal gyrus’.

‘When the brain region doesn’t function properly, or when we have to make particularly quick decisions, the researchers found one’s ability for empathy is dramatically reduced.’

This area of the brain helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

So our need to react, to be part of the conversation happening around us, to be relevant, to be first, might be diminishing our ability to have empathy and compassion.”
-Veronica Belmont

As we build, use, and improve new systems to connect with each other it’s important to take time for time’s sake, to allow our this part of brains to work and empathize and listen to others that may not be like ourselves and design in ways that add meaningful value or change to their lives. Veronica explained the value of time to us at XOXO, “at the end of the day a more mindful Internet will be a better place for all of us.” It’s important thing to remember is that the Internet exists as an extension of the world, not separate from it, and to bring that mindfulness you cultivate to the rest of what you put into the world.