On Practicing Empathy in the Work Place to Enhance Digital Products

I’ve been watching a great YouTube channel lately, run by Mattias P Johansson (formerly at Spotify), called Fun Fun Function. A couple years ago, he made a video about the psychological safety of development teams, and it really struck home for me as a more junior developer trying to learn and grow into software.

In short, the psychological safety of a development team is the confidence in its team members to take risks, ask dumb questions, and work with one another empathically.

What’s more, the idea of psychological safety got me thinking about how we ingrain our thoughts and intentions into digital products. I feel that the engine informing this mechanism is ultimately rooted in our capacity and execution in empathy, and users suffer when the engine fails.

Google had a 4 year study on development teams and concluded that the teams with the most productive and stable velocities tend to be ones with high psychological safety. Or more plainly put, the team members learn, grow, make mistakes, and were able to deliver better products, faster.

This is opposed to the teams where cooperation was sparse, open discussion was not given the proper space, and team members dominate team projects. Team members are afraid to speak up, the product is at risk, and more importantly, the individual’s performance and growth is stunted.

I can’t tell you the number of times I felt I couldn’t ask a question out of fear of looking stupid, based on previous experiences of my team members calling each other out in socially unaware tones, or a senior team member (sometimes a manager) reacting poorly to critical situations resulting in deep anxiety.

The result of that pain and discomfort, for me at least, is the same as what I’ve already described in theory: my work suffers, I question my own judgments, and my coworkers become frustrated.

Luckily, I’ve learned to break that cycle early. Sadly, all of us stand to crumble by aggressive and condescending team members, and no one can (or wants) to build software under toxic conditions.

From my design discipline, I’ve always been taught to think of the end user and their experiences: How can we ensure they don’t get frustrated? How can we win their trust? How do they see the product and how does that affect their usage habits? These are valuable questions to ask, and as builders of software, this industry is continually improving that process of working with the end user (in theory).

But this practice of understanding the user means nothing if we don’t first apply that thinking into the business and its employees delivering an experience.

There’s a classic saying: the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I think that applies strongly to corporations providing digital experiences. The internal attitude of the business and software team inevitably reflects on the work they produce.

The more open and trusting we are with each other, the more open and adamant we become inimproving the user’s trust in our software, because we’ve used our inherent (or learned) thoughtfulness to enhance the digital experience.

George is a front-end developer and digital designer living in Oakland, California. He currently codes things as a senior software engineer at ServiceNow. When he’s not in a text editor, he can be found long boarding, playing video games, or napping. Usually napping.

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