As a researcher, I first got into empathy because, I was using text messages as my primary means of communication with everyone, whether it was team meeting, or emails and making plans to meet my friends. Living in Finland, where people most of the people identify themselves as introverts and shy, I felt like I am losing my ability to interact socially and felt out of touch with my own emotions.
I was actively using atleast 6 different chat application, slack, messenger, whatsapp, text messenger, email, skype on a regular basis. But the need to express myself had never been higher. As it is known that the humans are more empathetic while communicating face-to-face, we are creating a culture, where anyone from behind the computers could use internet and their hurtful words as a weapons to spread the hatred and negativity, with no understanding about how it might affect people at the receiving end of the spectrum.
I felt there was a great need to put empathy into digital services and communication channel. although there are a lot of ways of expressing oneself online, it still lacks the basis of human touch and warmth. I started by doing some research on how we express ourselves into the digital world. In the recent years, we have emoticons, smileys and gif as a way of expressing our intent in most of the applications, but how about our innate needs to connect with another human being? After all, we are all animals who used their intelligence to create various language to express and communicate effectively and connect with others(and exploit nature for our personal gains).
It was a good starting point for me to dive into the subject, and to explore further into the subject of empathy, the art of relating to other person’s feelings.
As a software developer, I spend a lot of my time in front of my computer or looking through the screens. And as a student of user experience, I saw this as an opportunity to integrate empathy into the application I am working at, and being able to connect with the very users that I am building the application for. Most of the time, we are concerned with the tasks, deadline, and meeting the requirements or finishing up the sprint. But we have little knowledge about who the end users of our product are and what kind of responses and reaction they have after using the very product we have developed. It’s potential impact or desired results are what makes it valuable to the users and are learning opportunities for the product team to provide better service.
As I work I am doing is related to social and healthcare sector, I started learning about empathy in medical professions and digital service creation. As empathy had shown to have positive effect on patients and basis of trust and good relation between healthcare profession , it was important for me to know how to make our product more trust worthy and valuable to the professionals and patient’s alike.
Soon, after trying to figure out human centered product development
Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.
To practice, empathy: I started looking tools to build empathy, first of all I thought we were going to get our clients at a hospital, but then after waiting for two to three months we realized that the hospital has decided not to proceed, so we will be doing our research at a bridge-coaching center which provides rehabilitation facilities for users with various backgrounds. In our case, it happened to be people who are about to be released from the prison and are going through the substance abuse recovery program.
In order to be able to empathize with the users and understand in a better way, I started learning more about drug addiction and challenges faced by the people who have addiction problems. It was important for me to know into what kind of problems they faced and learning about how their behaviors in the immediate environment.
Good thing is, I had committed myself to not to try any drugs under any circumstances, not cause I know it affects me badly but what if I really like it and want to have the pleasure effects over and over again.
So instead of relating to drug addicts, I chose to relate myself as an alcoholic. For me, addiction is similar in nature, the only difference people make is whether you are addicted to legal substance or illegal substance. And it was easier to find and observe alcoholics in Finland, and I could personally relate to them cause I am known as an avid binge drinker among my friends but not to a point where I am dependent on it to function everyday.
So, first I started drinking more and attending more parties, although I drank a lot of alcohol, I am pretty much quiet in nature, so I didn’t display any violent reactions and socially unacceptable behaviors as most of alcoholic would do.
Then, I started attended AA meeting online, and introduced myself as an alcoholic. After that, I learned about people’s experiences, read people’s discussion in chat groups, and how they have been clean for so long so far, and what made them quit and all. They were very inspiring and motivating and being in the same group feel like, you are not the only one with this problems and so many people face similar situations in a different parts of the world and are trying to put their lives back in places and are committed in doing so.
Then, I went on to attend more parties and introduced myself as Hi, I am Ash, and I am an alcoholic. That was the turning point for me to realize how people view alcoholic, infact those who knew me, thought I was joking, and for those who didn’t knew me, they felt instantly let down and frowned upon me. I don’t know if they felt that I was weird or just the way they view any other alcoholic.
When I explained it to my friend about my research, then they understood me. But for those strangers who were frowning and reluctant to be friends with alcoholic person, I wish them good luck.
I knew that most of the people were practicing 12 steps or recovery programmes. And for me, I felt like I should go through the same steps if I want to understand what it is about, although I had read in summary about it’s core message, I had not gone through the whole process by myself. So one day, I decided to give it a go, then while I was going through the first process, which is to accept yourself as an addict, and completely surrender that you have no power over alcohol. I started making more and more sense to me, it felt like I really was an alcoholic before I had even started saying that to people.
I had to make an inventory about the list of things that I had done that had harmed me, also others, and how my habits have affected my other works. And the more I started writing about my new found alcoholism, I started to feel like it is really has become a problem for me.
All my social interactions was always surrounded by alcohol, I was a tutor, and I met my tutees at the bar. I drink, and on the next day hangover promise to not drink again like this ever, and the next day would be gone as unproductive cause I could not get my mind over the heaviness of alcohol.
I was spending a lot of money and would always be ready to attend gatherings where alcohol would be served. And most importantly, I could not stop at just one or two drinks, I had to drink like I am not going to leave until the alcohol is finished or I pass out.
Then I realized, it was time for me to be more responsible and get out of this rut and break the bad habit, I became more conscious about my drinking habit and which made me more reflective upon the actions I had done while I was drunk. I felt terrible for myself, without even harming anyone but me. So, I would recommend everyone to go through the 12 steps program, if they want to have a very deep reflection about their problems.