Storytelling, empathy, and finding purpose

For me, accessibility was a game changer in thinking about the purpose of design.

As a starving musician, I stumbled into design in the course of trying to put food on the table. Without a design education I was never quite sure of what design was all about. As an interaction designer, I was torn between delighting the eye and quietly helping people on their way — both visible and invisible, imposing and encouraging, shouting, “Look at me!” and murmuring, “You’re on the right track.” I muddled along, confused.

In 2001 I attended a Nercomp conference on Web Accessibility and presented a talk called “Practical Accessibility in Web Page Design.” This was my second presentation on the topic, the first a few months earlier at another higher ed/IT conference. Web accessibility was new to me and new to higher education.

Before lunch, Gerald Neufeld, PhD, gave a talk called “Visually-Impaired Students and the Struggle to Survive.” Dr Neufeld is visually impaired, and he described his time as a student, listening to texts on reel-to-reel tapes. He said that he could not afford to listen to a book more than once because of the time it took. He contrasted his pre-digital experience with his current experience of reading online, demonstrating the unimaginably fast reading speed he uses with his screen reader. He spoke of how digital technologies have leveled the playing field, removing obstacles such as reading and writing time for people with visual disabilities. “In 1980, the mountain I was climbing had no end. Twenty years later, that mountain is no more.”

Dr Neufeld was a compelling storytelling. I felt his frustration and distress, and worried with him about keeping up with such compromised access to primary materials. I also felt worry transform into delight at the world of opportunity presented by electronic texts, and software to read them. And while his access was much improved by electronic documents, he had stories to tell of obstacles he encountered, such as image-based PDFs. I felt discouraged by obstacles that could so easily have been avoided — opportunities that were so close, yet still so far.

Empathy is a powerful learning tool. Dr Neufeld told stories in such a way that encouraged others to step into his shoes and broaden their knowledge and understanding of the world. From Dr Neufeld I learned that the purpose of design is delivering content and functionality, without obstacles, to as many people as possible.

8 thoughts on “Storytelling, empathy, and finding purpose

  1. First I have to ask your forgiveness – I admit I tracked you down; but you do have a blog here so I guess you want responses. You will figure out who I am soon enough. So I apologize for any unwanted intrusion.

    As a graphic designer I understand your passion for accessibility and function. A website should be all about finding what you are looking for. It should be easy to navigate, load rapidly and make sense. No one wants to have to click on twenty links to find what they are looking for. And the information that you find had better be accurate and up-to-date.

    But design plays a role too; and not just to delight the eye (or the ear in Dr. Neufeld’s case). You won’t hear the lyrics if you don’t like the music and thus turn the channel. Let’s face it – attention spans are short, and there is always another song to listen to.

    The first thing I do when working with a new client is to define their product – what am I selling? What do I want to portray? In Dartmouth College’s case I would say – Ivy League; Excellent Academics and Life Experience; Path to a Successful Future; Solid; Secure; Safe; A Notch Above All the Rest; One on One with Faculty and Staff; State-of-the-Art Equipment; Great Amenities; Exciting; Fun; Rewarding. Then I would pick/create photos/images that show just that and build a brand that I could promote and protect across all medias.

    I would also determine my target audience and what I want them to do – then lead them there (kind of like the pied piper). A layout should entertain and direct the eye (using color, size and imagery). If you were to put all the information (especially on such an animal as Dartmouth College) on one page, it would overwhelm the viewer and cause them to depart the page in record time. You have to set priorities by directing the eye, and organizing/ streamlining content. Many times the first priority is the call to action (call this phone number, contact this person, visit this website or location). Other times it is the appeal (we need your help) or even the product brand itself. Most people will read as little copy as need be to figure out what they are looking for; if you can’t grab them in that time, you’ve lost them. Sometimes you can hold them longer by flattery – include their name, target their interests, compliment them.

    So that is my two cents – take it for what it’s worth. I try not to take myself too seriously – no one else does:)

  2. Elizabeth, thanks for commenting! And I agree 100% about the importance of engaging visitors. But to extend your radio analogy – which I quite like, by the way! – if the radio is broken or I can’t work it, then it doesn’t much matter what music is playing.

    In medicine, “Above all, do no harm” is a first and guiding principle. “Above all, deliver content and functionality” doesn’t have quite the same oomph, but you get the idea.☺ Start with access, and then work to engage, delight, and inspire to take action. Fortunately it’s not an either/or – you can have both accessible and engaging!

  3. Well I have to agree with that. It makes me think of a job I interviewed for. I responded to an ad for a web designer to create a website for a local newspaper. I visited the site they had started to get some idea of what they had already in place. The navigation bar did not work, there was copy oddly placed along the side and only one functional link that lead to a brief story. While interviewing, the publisher showed me the website on his computer. I was amazed at how different it looked. The navigation bar actually worked although the copy was still off-kilter. I told him that it looked much different on my laptop and that there was a function in Dreamweaver where he could check for browser compatibility. He was using Mac OS X with Safari, while I was using Windows 7 with Internet Explorer. Afterwards I sent him a screenshot. Occasionally I will visit his site to see if it’s changed – it hasn’t as far as I can tell since I can’t get past the home page. I would love to help him out, but he wanted to pay $10/hour and I insisted on at least $15.

    I must say, though, that I was mainly talking about print design in my initial post; however I feel my points work with both formats. It’s a little more difficult to ‘break’ a printed piece, but it can be done. Opening up a card to find the copy upside-down, or worse yet, missing copy because the file was printed as two-color and the designer set some of the copy in the same color but choose different versions or builds. For a recent fold-out mailer (with envelope and insert tear-offs) I designed, I was sent scans of previous pieces to show me the layout and dimensions they wanted me to mirror. At first I laid out the file as the scans indicated, but soon realized that it was backwards. It became apparent that the last designer had used a landscape layout and just replaced the images with portrait images without taking into account how the piece would open. So instead of opening up like a greeting card, it opened backwards with the envelope and insert interfering with the inside message. Not a good way to impress a potential donor. Funny part is that I was given three separate series of scans meaning that the job got printed and distributed at least three times before being ‘caught’. If they’d only given me the job in the first place!

    1. Well, after rereading this I wish I could edit it – differently, not different; chose, not choose.

  4. Sarah! I stumbled upon this post through a google search on empathy and storytelling. I’m gathering a list of empathy-building books and movies as part of a small campaign to engage users in a much broader initiative making the case for why empathy is crucial skill today (and tomorrow) and offering tips for how to cultivate it. (You can check us out here: And even submit your own favorite empathy building book here I wonder if you might be interested in contributing a piece about the ways in which empathy/the empathic skillset play an important role in web design. It’s not a topic we’ve touched on at all yet, and it’s so very relevant. If the business angle were strong enough, it might even work for a column my org (Ashoka) has with Forbes. Hope to hear from you.

  5. Hi, Laura, thanks for your comment. Start Empathy looks like a great project, around a topic that I strongly support. Please feel free to contact me directly about possible collaborations! (Hint – email is in the footer! :))

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