Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Empathy and egocentricity

I learned recently a friend in London (an American actually) has been working with Sony doing user research on the EyeToy. So heady is the research that she traveled all the way to New Zealand--just before I moved here--to present her findings on the project to the Asia Pacific CHI conference. As I catch up with this news, I think wow, cool -- and feel a tinge of envy. My work at the moment is more mundane: I'm looking at billing systems. No cool factor, indeed, I can't say I find invoices intrinsically interesting at all. But curiously, I'm enjoying the project, despite not being interested in bills. My enjoyment paradoxically comes from being able to put distance between my egocentric self and the material itself. I hate bills; I mean, really hate bills. Life's too short to spend time pondering them. Sure I might save some money if I paid more attention to them, but is it worth the psychic cost, I rationalize? (Oddly I get excited about saving money on things I am prone to want to buy anyway, not the things I resent spending money on.) Then there are people more sensible than me, who pay attention to such matters. Another group, fewer in number, really care passionately about bills. I talk with these people and can strangely identify with their needs. I want them to succeed because I'm not competitive with them. I might believe there is a right way to do something I'm passionate about, or a right way to design the EyeToy, but I can more easily step back and hear what other users think is the right way to do something I would care little about, if it weren't for their interest in the issue. I am interested because other people are interested, not because I'm inherently interested myself. Humans, myself included, are egocentric by nature: we think, even if subconsciously, how do I care about this? It's easy to empathize with users when you can focus on them first, and then the issue, rather than first seeing the issue first, which can trigger personal associations before the consideration of the users'. So looking at the EyeToy isn't easy if you think harbor a personal interest in it. My hat's off to those how can maintain a natural egocentric interest and manage to empathize with the interests of others, who may just see things a bit differently.

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