Azul 7

What can others learn from your approach to promoting empathy for users?: 

At Azul 7, we do not consider the promotion of empathy as only relevant to researchers or designers, but rather the whole project team including our clients. When possible, we involve a range of roles in the empathy gathering process—we have our client engagement team participate in user interviews, development teams observe usability testing or share customer journey maps with the client development team. This holistic approach to empathy gathering provides the entire team with knowledge that helps inform their work throughout the project. We also believe in continuous learning. We provide our team with regular design thinking training and enrichment to keep our tools and methodologies sharp, and we participate in community design challenges that allow us to exercise these skills under unique constraints. We also provide design thinking and other human-centered design training to organizations across the company, and by teaching the value of empathy to others, our team is constantly learning more for their own benefit.

What research, data, and other information does your team use upfront, and how has that been effective in generating informed empathy?: 

Our tools and information gathering methods vary by project, but we strive to begin every engagement with an exploration phase in which we build empathy for our users. Depending on the client, the audience and design challenge, we may perform personal interviews with end users; interviews and working sessions with stakeholders; observational interviews in the context of user environments; intercept interviews in public spaces; rapid prototyping and user testing; surveys; analytics analysis; and/or analogous research. We stress the importance of in-person interviews and observations because they allow us to gain deeper empathy and identify unmet needs that often become overlooked in everyday life. Ask someone if there is anything they would change about a piece of software and they might say no, because they’ve become accustomed to using it in a dysfunctional state. Observe someone using that same piece of software and you can identify the workarounds they’ve created, or bottlenecks in their workflow that they don’t even notice themselves. These undiscovered unmet needs are where we can apply empathy to design the most valuable, useful solutions.

What does your team do to maintain and fine-tune its empathy for users on an ongoing basis during the course of a project?: 

We begin by ensuring that all team members start a project on the same page. To share out research findings and set a foundation of empathy and understanding of users, we do unpacking sessions. In each unpacking session we create empathy maps and as a team, talk through each individual interview, deconstructing our conversations and observations into the four quadrants of 'say', 'do', 'think', and 'feel'. This exercise helps surface high-level themes and it allows us to focus on the emotions that drive user behaviors. We use modeling like that, combined with other research information and data to craft user personas. Personas are referenced by our entire team, and our clients, throughout the life of the project. Whether we're making internal decisions or talking through design choices with clients, we use personas to remove ourselves from our own personal opinions and maintain that empathy for the user's real goals. Once we have a prototype, we continue empathy gathering through testing. That may mean we run users through a website mockup or have people interact with real physical objects, but the goal is to test ideas and see if we're really resonating with user emotions and needs. Testing may occur at multiple times during a project, as we increase the fidelity of prototypes and continue to deepen our empathy.

Please describe one or more compelling examples of how empathy for users has positively affected your team’s successfulness.: 

Empathy is constantly and openly made the center of our decision making. At the start of each project when we conclude our research phase, we establish a set of user goals. This set is agreed upon by every team member and approved by the client. It makes decision making a lot easier down the road for everyone when we've all already agreed that our mission is help our users achieve certain things. During a project, if a team member (either internally or on a client team) starts reasoning with, "Well I would want..." or, "I really prefer it this way..", the rest of the team is responsible for reminding that person who we are designing for. We try to keep our users present constantly by posting large print outs of personas on the walls of our workspaces and bringing them to meetings with clients. That way, if someone loses their user-centered frame of mind, it's easy to turn to these representations of our users and refocus the team.

What do you do to ensure empathy for users permeates the team and appropriately influences decision-making on an ongoing basis?: 

The fact that our business is operating successfully is in itself a testament to the effect of empathy on our team. That's because every project we undertake and every new client we engage with is based on a foundation of empathy—not just for end users, but also for each other, for our clients and for others in our community. In terms of a specific project's success, we could provide many examples. One large recent example is our work with Healthagen, an Aetna company that owns several smaller start-ups. When we started our partnership with Healthagen, which ultimately led to the redesign of five flagship brand products, we were focused on the redesign of Medicity's ProAccess. ProAccess is a health information exchange used by doctors and clinical staff to access patient health records. We were tasked with redesigning the entire system interface, without making any changes to the backend functionality of the product. We performed in-depth interviews and observations in clinics and hospitals across the country to gain empathy for the users of this product. In critical clinical situations, where every second or minute is crucial to a patient's health, workflow efficiency is of the utmost importance. Even small changes to a piece of software can save valuable minutes for a nurse or doctor. By observing administrative staff, nurses, physicians, pharmacists and others, we were able to better understand the environments in which they use this software. One observation session in particular involved a clinical pharmacist. On an average day this pharmacist tapped into up to seven different computer systems to reconcile a single patient’s medication history. The time lag and inefficiencies of each system actually led her to work from three computers at once. While one system was running a slow data query, she would move to a second computer to get a jumpstart on the next patient. She was printing out massive lists on each patient and marking sheets up with her own coding to try to manually reconcile and keep track of all this data. All told, it could take her up to 20 minutes to reconcile a single patient’s medication record. Compare that with the multiple floors of patients she was responsible for on a daily basis, and the inefficiency is astounding. Once we were able to empathize with people like the pharmacist, knowing the external stressors and chaos that they are constantly working with, we were able to channel that empathy into designing an interface that works the way they truly need it to.