July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Designing for Empathy: Context Matters - Ron Bronson

September 7, 2016

Speaker - Ron Bronson

Everything about our content and products have a stance. What’s culturally relevant to one person, might draw blank stares in a room of another people. Depending on what we’re making and where, understanding this can change everything about the reception of a product, service & content. In this talk, we’ll explore why context matters and ways to develop design strategy that places empathy front and center.

Transcription coming soon

Hello nerds!

So, this is going to be interesting for you all. So, yeah, I’m Ron Bronson, you figured that part out. So this talk when I wrote this talk, and I’ll get into kind of what I was thinking about when I wrote this talk, but I’ve made some tweaks to this talk because I was telling one of my friends when I got here, I was like, everybody keeps stealing all my lines. I had to change this entire thing because you guys kept stealing all my lines. So if I forget something, it’s your fault. We covered the Ron Bronson part already. That’s my name. It’s Ronald Bronson, Jr., I don’t have a middle name.

I’ve been working on the web for a long, long time. Most recently leading departments in different parts of the country, so the reason Steve met me on the east coast, where you live, is because I’m always somewhere else. Where do you live now or whether it’s for a job or a girl, you know? Now we’re all friends. So anyway.

These days I’m really interested in service design and so I’m really interested in how we build things for real people, right, not just about pixels, not just about the customer experience, but the entire journey, and all the things about the life cycle of that. And I do run a consultancy these days and so anyway, this is the basics. You can Google it, whatever.

So we’re going to talk about today, if this thing goes, is first of all, few of the Canadians know what Prime Minister’s Questions are, right? But for the Americans, you ever see the Prime Minister’s Questions where the prime minister has to answer and the opposition team — or not team — anyway, I did this in college. Spoiler alert. I’m not — stand forward. Move forward. There we go.

You got to pay for that. So at any rate, and partly what happens is there are two teams and there’s a resolution, and the reason I did this today is because we you talked about football today and I thought it would be good. If we had a resolution today, it would be this house would remove the blinders. The house is whoever is in the room. So for the argument of today that’s what we’re going to talk about today. So what do I mean by blinders? So usually you would define everything in the resolution. You all all be in the house, the blinders being the things, the barriers that prevent you from seeing what your users are seeing. You ever read an article, you saw an ad somewhere and thought, this wasn’t for me? Anybody raise your hand. You ever saw an ad or article? You read an article? Happens a lot in political articles, right, where you read something and clearly, full disclosure when I was in my 20s, I was a Republican. Yeah, I know. Look, don’t judge.

OK? And so I used to read a lot of stuff, right? I used to read a lot of things. But at any rate, I used to read a lot of things and clearly this guy didn’t envision that I existed, that I was like a teenager and my early 20s, and I quite understand that, but it still happens today and not just in app political article or an opinion piece, but in advertisements, or in experiences and the things that it builds. So this came on Twitter the other day so I added it to the deck about this article that was the article on E news that they deleted about the hot comb and I don’t have much hair so I can’t speak to what a hot comb does, but long story short, a hot comb has been popular for a really long time in African American communities, but this article was like, holy cow, can you believe this exists? Why didn’t anyone tell us?


Here’s the problem. Who’s the we in that conversation, right? Then you’ll need to read the article, because why engage in a conversation about things, let’s just delete this. So this whole thing about myopia, right? Came from Ted Leavitt. pioneer, Harvard, whatever, I won’t read the quote. You’re really good at reading, this whole idea of myopia. Talk about Blockbuster, or Netflix disruption or something like that. The idea is that the disruption didn’t come from how great tech is but from blinders, the things we weren’t seeing. If you have a significant advantage in your industry, it makes you comfortable, and starts to let you think, we’ve got it here, we’re always going to win, until you’re not and those blinders prevent us from seeing things that might be threats. So everything that we’re covering today is really about the fact that the work that you do, whether it’s concept, whether it’s design, whether it’s dreaming, that was a laugh line.

Of all the things that you do, cause, could be, could be ways that your company is losing out because you’re not paying attention or you don’t speak up. You may see these problems, but you don’t speak up.

At one time or another, an example of Steiner myopia, and the thing that happens while I talk is there are tweets that go out while I talk that could be articles that I couldn’t fit into this, because it’s like 45 minutes or not five hours or a workshop, things that correspond to these things, so the article is actually being tweeted out. So you can read it on your own time, not now, but talking about how, as designers, and this is designers at large, so don’t feel like, well, I make content, I’m not a designer, shh for the purposes of this conversation, designers at large. This idea that we’ll go make things because it sounds good to us or it will impress or bosses or our friends, without regard for a damn about whether it appeals to our audiences or whether they care. This is not going to be a race talk, don’t get excited. Pokémon Go, obviously five of you are playing it and the rest of you are confused. Why is Pokémon Go racist?

Why are they red-lining all the Pokémons? If you don’t know what red-lining is, come to see me after. I’ll explain it. Why did this happen? There was a game before this called ingress that was way more cooler than Pokémon Go is and full content. That Pokémon Go is built on top of stuff of ingress. The point of this conversation is not to point out whether I care or not about this. The issue is this, why didn’t it occur to anybody to ask the question or do anything about it? Why are we figuring it out after the fact and the reason this is an issue is pretty straightforward. So economic engine, what did it add to Nintendo’s bottom line? Think of how much more they could have made if somebody had said, hey, you know guys, let’s go down the street. Do you have the same blinders in your organizations every single day. You have blinders in your product every single day and for whatever reason, you don’t raise your hand or you don’t speak up and it’s not just racial. It’s not just gender related. It’s about customers, about people, and about their challenges.

We like to embed the biases that we have, we imagine a product the way we want to use that product. We imagine a product that our friends use. We might imagine a product that our friends use. We often just dismiss them and laugh about them not being savvy enough. That’s problematic because they’re our customers.

One more myopia definition for you: Another article that will go out, as well, that I thought was fascinating and I almost wanted to change my talk and just talk about this. This idea of building buildings, architects in a research study that came out in 2008 that said that architects legitimately do not see the world the way that other people do. A person will build a building and an architect would say isn’t this fantastic? And the person would say no. And the architect would say, well, but no, you don’t understand, I’m right. Now, as designers, none of you ever do this, so — you can’t relate to this, so I’m just going to help you understand.

As someone who’s worked in a lot of organizations of people who are a lot less reasonable than you are, and far better at understanding the dichotomy between where you are and where somebody else might be, and in that comes a lot from the roots of our training, right? If you trained in a particular part of design or kind of design, it’s going to influence the way that you see things. For architects it’s not a big issue. Their training made them unable to see the world the way that ordinary people do. Ordinary being all of us, right because we’re not them and the last thing that came up was justifying their own cognitive difference, so it came up not only did they not listen to you when you identified what the issues were and what the challenges were, but on top of that when they had excuses and reasons for why, like they could cite probably an article that they wrote in a magazine edited by their friends, which again, you can’t relate to at all, explaining why what we’re doing is right, why they’re wrong and why there’s no reason anybody would think anything other than that.


When you fail to consider what outside people their experiences outside of the experiences of people in your town or in your office or on your team, not only do you suck.

I suck, too. I’ve got plenty of blind spots galore, right? It’s not just about that. There are a ton of use cases that you could be discovering if somebody would speak up and talk about it. Spoiler alert, you go to a conference, you learn really great things and you can do 5% of what you learned because of all the barriers, right and I really hope with the 20 minutes that I have, fix some of that, because it’s important.

So we’re going to get real for about two minutes, and we’re going to talk about checks. Everybody loves checks in 2016, checks, checks, checks, checks. Clients still pay in checks because it’s 2016.

Say you deposit a check. Check gets flagged by the bank. You attempt to find out, you don’t find this out though, until you go to the ATM to get some money because you want to go to to the movies with your sweetheart, because you like movies with your sweetheart and you can’t actually go to the movie because your account eats your card because something is wrong.S spoil alert, you didn’t know this happened, because they didn’t call you and tell you or email you and tell you. So you call the bank to ask them what happened. And they tell you oh, hey, your account is being closed. And you say, we need to verify whether that check is real or not. We think the check is fake. OK, long story short, here’s the process for — I’ll leave this here, you can just look at it and marinate on the anger of people. Because there’s a punchline here.

After you find out about this, they tell you this, to be OK, so you call the person who issued the check and say, hey, are you fraudsters and they say no, we’re not fraudsters, the long story short, the check gets cleared finally and they open your account and the person on the phone tells you that it’s basically your issue now for a thing you didn’t have anything to do with. Now, why does this matter? I can’t go on their website and find out on the chase website what happens when this happens. I can’t call anyone at the branch and have them tell me, because they will tell me to call the 800 number, which will then tell me to go on the website at chase.com to find out more about blah, blah, blah blah, blah, blah. But there are lots of people online who are more than happy to tell me about their experience when this same thing happened to them. Do you feel the opportunities here? Do you feel the challenges of your products and your challenges and your content and how it could be more efficient or better? Maybe not.

Another example. This happened to a friend of mine. What happens when you forget to pay the light bill and you think, how did you forget to pay the light bill. What idiot? What an idiot for gets to pay the light bill? Like, how could you possibly do that, idiot? Here’s how you do it, you sign up for the green alert that they sell you when you first sign up, not thinking anything about it. And then your friend goes on the road for two months and then your friend comes back and says come on over, let’s have pizza, I’m back,and then the lights go out. Why aren’t you Netflix and chill, guy night!

Little did you know you were going to have candle light. You need to go home. Because that’s not what you want.

Again you go back to the website on your cell phone to find out what you’re supposed to do because it’s 8:00 at night. Here’s what you do. Even if you pay the bill online, they won’t fix it until the next day but there’s no way to find this out on the site. Every site is different I’m sure your utility company is way better than mine. We’re talking about stress cases and all these issues, but we don’t identify what these challenges are until they happen to us and then we forget and we go to work.


I didn’t put this slide in here, but I’m going to say it really quickly. I’m gluten free and I was at the store, I didn’t know that Cheerios are gluten free, but the story on the back of the box is it says here’s Bob or Tom or whatever Tom’s been with us for 60 years and I’m like you’re 65, how did this happen. This is the story on the back of the Cheerios box. I’ll retweet it. Tom’s granddaughter is gluten free and when we found that out, Tom being a long-time employee of 30 years at Cheerios.net we decided we needed to make gluten-free Cheerios because of Tom’s granddaughter, and I’m thinking, well, damn, that’s a hell of a lot of power. I wish my granddad was still alive, could hook me up like that. But you write content like that every single day because you want to relate to the audience, because you want to connect. But who are you alienating in that process if you don’t have someone who can connect to you in that same way because that was my first question, well, what happens with somebody who doesn’t have a granddad who has power like that? We work our audiences every single day, we work with them, we deal with them. You’re out there and you see, you understand, you experience, but for all the stuff you do know, there are so many things we don’t know. There are so many blinders and things that inhibit us from being able to delve further into messaging.

If you went to a local motor vehicles office or an airport and ask those folks what they think of you can you imagine the melange of responses you’ll get? I’m sure you think you know the audience, and how you all screw up everything and make their lives more complicated? But do we do the same things with our audiences all the time. And also the power is different, right? We design things that are faceless, we make things that people don’t understand how they work, it’s magic, just do it, I really don’t know, use your web magic, go in Photoshop yesterday, why didn’t you do it yesterday. But they have incredible power because if you don’t have the form that you need, they can send you to the back of the line, you’ll be there all day tweeting about it.

We love giving a snapshot of our customers but do we really know them very well? And that’s a question that’s an open question for you to think about. Perspective influences the goal line. We’re getting near the end here. And with apologies to Jon Lax for doing this before me. I had to I designed my slide before I saw his and I’m not pleased that you beat me to this, that’s why you don’t go on the last day. You guy go on the first day, that way everybody knows your stuff. What’s this? Do you know what this is? Yes, someone just said CFL. For the Americans, do you know what this is? This is a football field. Thank you. Wasn’t a trick question. Like…. God! Americans let me down, right? What’s this, Americans? It’s a football field.

Oh, my gosh. I’m going home. What I just said perception influences the Canadian football and American football were born around the same time. Canadian football was born before American football. They were all derived from rugby. The point is the touch down is 20 yards, the American is 10. This also, also, Canadian football has 12 layers, Americans play with 11. You don’t know any of that by looking at the pictures, right? Well you can see the goal line thing pretty well, where you are, your perspective changes everything. They also play three downs, Americans play four downs. The point is. Wait a minute. I didn’t think that example through, did I? Also I set you geez up so you’re good now.

So anything I say. The point is where you stand in the conversation changes everything and so now we’re going to go to some takeout and I’m going to try to give you a few things. The last talk was really great because I’m not going to give you all the answers, you want me to help you with that, you know where to find me, but what you really need to think about is there are challenges and barriers that you have every single day and there are progressive and small ways that you can influence those changes through your work and I talked with some folks yesterday and they were like, what do you want me to cover and my works how do I convince my boss or where do I start? So like yeah, where do you start? Calculated risks, there are situations and circumstances where you have the ability to influence the direction of a particular project, process, or thing.


Oftentimes it’s just you, you can just do it, but in situations where you have to run that through a chain of whatever. There are ways that you can use your capital, social capital, political capital, you know, you and the boss are like this. To be able to use that inertia to say, you know what, Dave, buddy, let’s get a drink, I need to run this past you. But it might be a risk for political reasons. I’m going to tell you a story, so I worked with a client once. And there were a lot of political issues that I I didn’t know been until I got there, spoiler, surprise! And one issue. I was there and my team and I were getting along really well. We were part of a larger team that was a complete dumpster fire to put it mildly. And I’d never experienced anything quite like that. I’d always been in much much happier situations.

Took me a while to get used to t I never really got used to it, but one of the things I remember, my team we’d go out every Friday and I’d take them out to lunch and we’d talk about stuff and they said, Ron, you need to figure this out. You need to find some allies, so the long story is the risk was that we had a lot of VPs that were not connected to our department who didn’t understand the challenges that we had in the web department. For the purposes of this department the web team. They were imagining a huge site for statewide thing, 16 institutions, about 40, 50,000 users that use the testimony site at different times, so these people were providing content but didn’t know the challenges we had. They didn’t know the constraints, they didn’t know what our issues were. They were like you should talk to them and yeah, get fired? Good luck. Long story short, I made a response, talked to people who got me to talk to a bunch of other VPs and it opened up a lot of doors for us. First of all, they realized what we were doing. Two, they knew that we had an open door that we could talk to them and solve problems. We’re not your enemy. Folks that have been in IT for a long time, acrimony, right? What do you want? The IT crowd, what do you want, idiot user?

We still embody a lot of that acrimony, even though things are much easier and easier to use now, but still that’s basement IT guy, we still inhabit that in some ways, because we understand things at a level that folks don’t. We work, folks don’t understand our work. If we were mechanics they’d kind of get it, right, but when it comes to this computer stuff, a lot of folks tune us out. Our bosses, superiors don’t understand the things that we’re dealing with. But if you can break down those barriers, and a lot of you do, we’ve had conversations about these it can help. Going back to you are ingress conversation, Pokémon Go, whatever else, ask better questions earlier. In this case there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Now you know what the provisions were for that particular thing you thought about, or allow yourself to go down a path that you weren’t going before, where you’re like, hm, ask you are yourself a bunch of questions and synchronize that into one question that you can ask and I knew I was going to run out of time. When you think about all the frameworks that exist for process, right? Within responsible organizations and there’s tons of stuff out there on this now.

As you’re thinking about the processes of the frameworks that you use to solve problems, whether it’s story mapping, whether you’re doing a lot of the source design things that you can do it post it notes on walls, right? When you think about that, asking better questions in those earlier in those processes if you don’t have the questions, if your team doesn’t have the questions, bring folks in. I was trying to think of a better way to do this. Why not have a company that’s coming in to help you with user testing? If you have a team that does that? Let’s get some college kids, let’s get a group that get a group that looks like this. Let’s outsource Steve’s daughter to help us with that. You just got a new job. You’re going to be the Pokémon Go person, right? To figure these things out. So it’s not just about you use knowing the answers or us bringing the. In constrained ways. It doesn’t have to be an all-day thing. It could be an hour.


Most of you went to college. You know when you went to college, pizza is currency, if you bring the right group in, an hour of their time, you get answers galore. So much of what we talk about, the lack of money, the lack of team, the lack of individual expertise, whatever that is. And let’s talk about those constraints of frustration, if only this was this, it would be better. And oftentimes when we’re holding court with whatever our superiors are, we’re not as good about communicating the positives and using the constraints of hey, look at how productive we are, look at how great everything we’re doing is. Can you imagine how much better it would be if we had this or that and being incremental about that.

OK, you want a million, how about 10,000, right figuring out ways that you can solve these problems incrementally in way a leadership person can go and say you know what, here is some more leash, here is some more ground to cover. And finding allies. I can’t stress this tough, the composition of our team is mission critical. I’m not going to harp on the ways that our teams can be composed better. I don’t mean this in terms of diversity. I mean in terms of discipline, right? So much of the work we do is siloed out, and I know we’re getting better at that. But as someone who’s spent a lot of time in organizations, I’ve spent a lot of time in the middle of the country where things are a little bit slower and it’s not about that hack negative thing, it’s just the way things move it’s really important for us to communicate to people that it’s not just about us being the experts and knowing all the answers, it’s about bringing in outside people, having teams that are composed of different perspectives, different ideas, different experiences and frankly who understand the product in different ways, ask improve how we ship things so that we’re not having to go oh, we didn’t think about that, because now there’s no excuse for that.

Really? Really? Jon Kolko wrote a book — it’s yellow, it’s great, you should buy it. I’ll tweet it. I’m can’t think of the name right now and one of the things he talks about in the books is about stance. And this has come up a lot in the last two days, nothing we do is neutral. You have might think it is. And so, understanding how the stance, not just the product stance, but your stance at various aspects and touch points of the things that you do in that product, whether it’s shipping it out, before or after the fact, and so understanding that can help you ask per questions, help you illustrate constraints better to whoever is in charge.

This is the biggest question here, this question about how do I communicate what I do of value? How do you make people understand what I do and why it matters?

So much of what we want to do is tell people what we do using the nomenclature that’s comfortable to us. With design thinking being this explosion, proliferating everywhere is more important than ever for us as designers again, designers at large, to understand that we’ve got to meet folks on their terms, too. We’ve got to meet them on their turf, too, so whether it’s learning the language of business better in ways that you can communicate what you’re doing in language that people understand. However that is, you know that better than I do in your organization, your institution, whatever it is. But using whatever tools you have, whatever frameworks you have, whatever metrics you can to resonate with those stakeholders, because that’s going to bridge the gap better than telling somebody how many pixels something it. Finding that common ground has given me a lot more space and ground to work with, because folks don’t feel like you’re insulting your intelligence. This is the last thing. You have assumptions, we all have assumption, we come in with biases and ideas and thoughts that we come to honestly through our own experience, shaped by things that we’ve done and been through, and that’s all valid. But it might not be valid to the user who at 8:00 at night is trying to use your product or service or your app or your website or calls a number or something.

And this isn’t the last one. I lied. Sucks for you. I’ve got a minute left.

This whole idea of loving your product is controversial. I’m sorry, we want to feel the light and love and whoo? Love is hard, OK? We covered that earlier in this conversation. Love is very difficult and so at the end of the day I’m less concerned about the love. A mother calls me to help her solve problems with hey, can you help me pay this bill on the internet. Not talking about the love in your product she just wants to sign up for the coupons, all right? So it’s important to understand that love is great but what people want is functionality and they want reliability more than love. That’s what I got. My name is Ron Bronson.

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