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The Secret Ingredient of a Great Designer (Part 2 of 4)

This year I was privileged to attend An Event Apart, Washington DC Edition. In this four-part series, I'll share insights from my trip, and talk about how empathy transforms a good designer into a great one.

If you haven't already, start with part 1 of the series!

A Great Designer Creates Meaning


One of my favorite talks at AEADC was “Tech Humanism: Data, Automation, and Designing the Future of Meaningful Human Experience” by Kate O’Neill.

Our world is becoming increasingly automated. Many people would prefer to interact digitally rather than in person. In this age of bots and automated digital experiences, we should consider this: what makes us human? When asked this question, most people say creativity, empathy, or love. These are words that hold a lot of meaning for us.

What about this?

I'm Not A Robot Captcha
Robot Beats Captcha


This is an absurd idea, right? Checking that box doesn’t mean anything. It doesn't mean we're not a robot. It doesn't make us human.

When we start talking about processes, digital transformation, automation, and funnels to anyone that isn’t in this line of work, they sound absurd. They hold no meaning to humanity as a whole.


Absurdity crowds out meaning. The less you create meaning, the more it creates a void into which absurdity flows and fills out that empty space. - Kate O’Neill


Humans CRAVE meaning. So, why are we not creating more meaningful online experiences?

We have access to so much data (some might say creepy amounts of data), but have we ever considered the humanity that is represented in that data? Who is the person on the other end of the number?

We should be asking ourselves, “What can we do with this data to be more relevant and contextual? How can we create a deeper, respectful bond with the user? How do the decisions we make about automation affect the humans on the other side of the screen?”

The thing many companies don’t realize is that creating more meaningful digital experiences actually leads to more profit!

A great example of successful implementation of this concept is Disney. Their goal is to “Create Magical Experiences." It’s impossible to ignore how successful this concept has been. Each interaction one has with Disney (commercials, website, booking, hotel, bus driver, cast members, parks, wrist bands, even the staff who clean your room), is exceptional. They are incredibly focused on the process, on optimizing even the most mundane of experiences. This careful handling of the experience (not just the data) has resulted in a 70% return rate of first time visitors!



Girl Using Disney's Magic Band
Image by Bob Croslin

Next, let’s consider the Amazon Go Store. Amazon Go is a cashier-less store concept. Need some groceries? Add the Amazon Go app to your phone, walk in the store, grab what you need and walk out. No need to go through a check-out and deal with credit cards or cash. In theory, it’s a great concept! It’s trying to create a better shopping experience. But during her talk, Kate pointed out an interesting set of instructions included in the app. Let’s take a closer look:



Amazon Go App Instructions: Don't Take Groceries For Others
"Anything you take off the shelf is automatically added to your virtual cart. Since products you take go in your virtual cart, please don't take things for other shoppers."

So, you can’t take groceries for other people. Which means you can’t help someone reach an item on a tall shelf, or help a person in a wheelchair because you’ll be charged for the item if you take it. So what happens over the long term? Is it a far stretch to say people will be conditioned not to help each other? It could become the new normal. We don’t help other people because, well, we don’t know why, it’s just not something we do.

This may seem like an extreme example, but this is how a tiny, innocent design decision could completely rewrite core human values and behaviors.


Experience at scale changes CULTURE. Experiences at scale IS culture. This is what we are charged with as we are creating and developing human experiences. - Kate O’Neill


That’s a pretty big responsibility.

As the “real world” and the digital world continue to converge, consider who you’re creating experiences for. There are real people on the other side of all that data you’re collecting! Be kind. Be responsible. Be human. Pay close attention to the smallest details, and consider the cultural impact those decisions may have on future generations.


Further Reading:
Pixels and Place by Kate O’Neill
The Tech Humanist Manifesto by Kate O’Neill
How Disney Creates Magical Experiences (and a 70% Return Rate) by Gregory Ciotti
How Disney Creates Digital Magic With Big Data

Erin Fike
Graphic Designer
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