Being able to understand someone else’s perspective is a wonderful skill. Directly related to empathy, it’s essential to navigating, negotiating and maintaining social relationships – key to many aspects of our lives, whether at work or in social networks.

What’s the relationship to software development? I mentioned empathy in a recent post (] – it’s something that I had the chance to reflect on a lot in the last year, and especially the last few months taking care of my elderly, ill father. In software teams, empathy makes us all kinder to each other, and I argue in a recent presentation(] that developers capable of being inclusive of others’ perspectives have a higher chance of understanding the perspectives and needs of the many, diverse software users of the varied – increasingly integral to our society -- technologies we build nowadays. Therefore we can build more inclusive software.

In the INSPIRE projects, our students had to go outside their comfort zone to understand what would help the lives of, for example, cognitively impaired patients of brain injuries, women+ suffering from domestic abuse and at risk of homelessness, or less dramatic and yet affected youth grappling with anxiety from climate changes, or communities wanting to use large scale data for community response in face to environmental calamities. In one student’s words, "in working with vulnerable end users… I had no idea what to expect going into a focus group with a bunch of people that had faced homelessness and domestic violence, and it was nothing I could have prepared for. I just went in with an open mind, and tried to put myself in their shoes. Everything they suggested to me completely contradicted what I had assumed.” The reality however is that often the solutions we build are not rooted in the actual problem at hand, but motivated by own desires to advance particular technologies, one’s reputation or income. The women feeling abuse did not need an app to find availability in a shelter – the information could have been easily found in person; turns out that improving the shelters’ IT system would have had a greater chance of improving their situation. The students just building an app without trying to more deeply understand the lived experiences of those intended to use the app would have missed the opportunity to solve their real problem.

Can empathy be taught? Or is it a matter of one’s nature? Perhaps it is a matter of our own perspective on the world, and how we develop it as we experience the world and our relationships. Research by the Canadian psychologist Raymond Mar shows that reading books, particularly fiction books helps develop empathy as one gets immersed into someone else’s world, imagining people and their experiences in a deep and complex way. In INSPIRE, our experiential learning projects force students to cross boundaries into problems in our society that are rarely possible in a classroom project. Nothing seems to beat hands-on, personal experience, nor the value of time and reflection. More times that one gets exposed to different experiences, more opportunities exist to grow from (likely struggling with) different perspectives and to empathize with others and their situations. For me, the more I travel, the more I find myself experiencing and reflecting on other ways of thinking because of different ways of living (I will try to elaborate on this in a future post). Seeing life through someone else’s eyes and feeling through someone else’s’ feelings is equally humbling and empowering.

A telling, very personal experience for me, has been recently when I had to take care of my elderly, suddenly helpless, ill father. A lot of my energy has gone into doing things that I thought were good for him and his condition (including doctors’ visits, treatments, seeking long term accommodation so he can be more comfortable); and yet, he became frustrated and less comfortable. I realized that my perspective had been rather simplistic (when one gets ill, treatment and comfort should follow). Turns out, my dad just wanted to be; it took me a while to understand his lived experience and why doctors and medicine were not his primary concern anymore. I got frustrated myself and in the end I (presumably the strong, sane adult in the room) had to let go of my own beliefs and frustrations, because it was not about me and what I thought was right for him that mattered, in trying to help him. I came to realize that truly empathizing with someone is actually very humbling – yet crucial in finding solutions that truly work. Spending time with him I learned to love what he loved – we watched a lot of tennis together, eating cherries.

What do I take into my own or the software development world? In my personal relationships, I try to not be too fast in offering solutions in situations where perhaps there are no perceived problems, or where the problems are not easily evident to me. I will listen more, and pause before even thinking that I understand the other’s perspective. I am will be kinder. To the other. Really, it is not about me.

In software development, being kinder, the developer can be more inclusive of the team members’ perspectives by examining their own perspectives and reactions to situations that are, at first sight, different from the expected, often perceived as conflictual, yet the result of different ways of feeling, thinking, and being. By being open to a wider spectrum of ideas, experiences and perspectives, the inclusive team has an increased ability to understand and design solutions for another software stakeholder, the end-users, with most likely yet another different perspective, values and expectations. Furthermore, I argue that the empathy within the team and with the end-users exists in a mirroring relationship, whereby empathizing among the developers translates to and might be a result of empathizing with the software end-users.

Published: August 11th, 2023

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