The Other Side of Empathy

I love the web, and I hate the web.

Twitter is awesome, and Twitter is terrible.

Twitter (to me) is the vision of the web-inside-the-web where every person has his or her own domain and is free to share anything from anywhere in the world. I believe it is one of the best ways to communicate and connect with a community available today. But, as with most nice things, there are people trolls who feel the need to ruin it for the rest of us. We should be able to have nice things.

It’s not just the “trolls” who come with using Twitter, or any social network, who have inspired this essay; it’s anyone who acts on the gut-reaction to immediately whip out a phone and rage tweet their immediate thoughts when they see some new feature or design pop up on the interwebs. If you don’t know what I mean, just search “design sucks” in Twitter and you should get a pretty good idea. We have all done this at some point in time—yes, even me—and seeing well-respected individuals of the design/development/tech community take part in such mob mentality troubles me. This is a problem we created together, and it is a problem we can solve together.

As designers and product builders, we are told to empathize with our users in order to create awesome experiences for the web and beyond. I propose we take a look at the other side of empathy, and make an effort to empathize with the creators behind the products, features, or designs triggering those rage-tweet reactions seen across many a timeline. After all, these are people who probably frequent Twitter about as often as the rest of us. Few things can sap creativity and inspiration as quickly as seeing a mob of tweets tearing down one’s creative efforts in such a public forum.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t comment on the work of others. However, before making harsh, vague statements, we should fall back to that old lesson (with an addendum) :

“If you don’t have anything nice* to say, don’t say anything at all. ”

*Because we are adults, “nice” needs to be constructive. Compliment on a specific aspect that enhances the design. Comment on something you think could use improvement and offer a solution. These are principles we all should have learned in school but we seem to forget the minute we are granted the relative anonymity of social media.

Proclaiming the new Twitter profile pages “suck” because “they’re just copying Facebook” or it wasn’t how you would have done it does not count as valid, constructive feedback for the designers at Twitter or other similar companies. The same can be said about empty positive comments like “Great work! ” or “Wow”, which are quite popular on many Dribbble shots. Of course comments like this are a nice ego boost (and who doesn’t love that from time to time) but they leave nothing for the designer to iterate and innovate on.

This also includes the unsolicited redesigns that populate Dribbble and BeHance (I’m looking at you, iOS 7 redesigners). They are usually created without the context or data that the original designers used in their work, and they often fail to fulfill the principle reason for design — “to solve the right problems with the right solutions” (Jason VanLue, Three Pipe Problems ). Taking that into account, what problems do these unsolicited redesigns help solve? Empathize with those original designers by considering which problems they were solving and use those lessons to build upon our own designs.

So the next time Facebook announces a change to the News Feed, take a deep breath before launching that New Tweet dialogue and ask yourself a few questions. Is this your opinion, or are you joining the mob? If you really care for the future of this product or service, how can you help? You could file a bug report, send a detailed email to its creators, offer some assistance if it’s an open source project, or pass it along to a friend to help out. Overall, you will probably need more than 140 characters to provide any constructive feedback. Take a shot at the other side of empathy, ask “why would they do that?” instead exclaiming “that sucks!”, and hold yourself and others accountable for moving design forward.