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Ivory Tower Empathy

Jack Dyer
July 21, 2016

Ivory Tower Empathy

Sometimes, just thinking isn’t enough.

Bill Gates is funding a machine that turns faeces into drinking water. It also produces electricity. Human waste could power your entire life.


This machine would provide fuel for our electronic devices, and fuel (well, water) for our bodies. And it’s very, VERY expensive.

But cost doesn’t matter, when you look at the bigger picture. The point is,Peter Janicki is pioneering humanitarian services across the globe to make the lives of millions safer, cleaner and liveable.

Just think how lucky you are to be reading this article. On a computer, or electronic device. In a home, or office building. In a street, with streetlights powered by electricity. In a village, town or city entirely run by electricity and a deep network of safe and hidden sewage, waste and water networks. In a country where we have instant access to clean water and electricity wherever we are.

And most of us complain from the rooftops if our internet stops working, or isn’t as fast as we’d like it to be.

Take a moment to appreciate what we have in this country. Just think how INCREDIBLY lucky you are to have access to everything you take for granted.

Projects like this need to happen. People like Peter Janicki need to keep innovating, and keep inventing to make things for everyone. Yes, this takes a lot of money and time — but it also takes a lot of research.

So, what does this have to do with anything?

I’m humbled by the achievements of people like this. People who use their money, skills and intelligence for the genuine greater good. People who look outside their own bubbled views of their lives and try to improve the lives of others.

And (here’s where it all ties in) that’s what good designers should do.

Don’t just design for the latest version of Chrome, because that’s what you use. What about everyone still on Internet Explorer 8? There was a time when I had to design for IE6, even when IE6 was obsolete. It was tough and the team hated it, but we did it because why should those people miss out on a good experience due to their limited technology?

People in poor areas still deserve access to clean food and water (and hopefully electricity). Likewise, people who choose to use older phones (or simply can’t afford newer models) deserve to experience websites and apps in the same way that we do. They shouldn’t be punished for their technological constraints.

Don’t make all your images 2.5mb in size, just because your fibre internet doesn’t even hesitate when loading them. What about the people screaming from the rooftops because their broadband speeds are only marginally faster than dial-up? You may laugh “Such people don’t exist in the UK in 2016, pah!” But you couldn’t be more wrong; it’s a genuine problem. If you live in the country (as many do) internet speeds are usually absolutely dreadful.

As such, you need to make sure your content is optimised for those people with poorer speeds.

Take a trip to the rural areas of the Forest of Dean sometime, and try and use the Wifi in any home there. Or any rural country area near you. You’ll quickly discover the internet pain many rural residents experience that the city-living designers and developers didn’t account for, because it didn’t affect them.

Empathise with your users.When designing the faeces to water machine, [Peter Janicki and his family traveled to Africa and India multiple times to see the scope of the problem.] They conducted first hand research and experienced their ‘users’ problems for themselves. They didn’t sit in their ivory tower and make judgements that didn’t hold true in the real world.
Research. Analyse. Design. Produce. Evaluate. Repeat.

You’ll produce something you can be proud of, because your users will be able to use it consistently, and repeatedly.

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Thanks to Gatesnotes in this article. If you liked this, I’d greatly appreciate you clicking that little green heart! Comments always welcome; drop them off in the box below ❤

Jack Dyer
Jack is a UX designer at Sonovate. Advocate of Human Centred Design. Deep thinker; tea drinker; steak eater.

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