Empathy and Compassionate Design

I used to ride my bike to work everyday. It's about 3 miles each way and I really enjoy the ride. As I was riding home one day, I starting thinking about how I experience roads as a secondary audience.

As I've been spending a lot of time thinking about accessibility in web design and trying to create great experiences for everybody, not just the primary user.

It's really difficult to anticipate the needs of every user. It's really hard to alter a design in production after the client has signed off on it, paid for it, and other users are used to using it a certain way.

Takeaways from Riding a Bike

1. It sucks to not be the primary audience.

I feel like I'm in the way. I feel unsafe, or that people are mad at me. I'm not sure that people see me. My safety seems to be secondary to everybody else getting where they are going as fast as possible.

2. Just because we've done it a certain way for a certain period of time, doesn't mean it's the best way.

Roads. They've been with us since Rome. Cars have been a primary form of transit for almost a century. People have been walking since the beginning of humankind. Nevertheless, we still haven't solved the design problem of safely and efficiently transporting people from one destination to another. There is especially a problem of interoperability. My bicycle works well on the road, in fact, a paved road is where my bicycle works best as it's designed. However, put my bike next to a car on the road and suddenly the drivers aren't sure what to do, they get frustrated, I get frustrated that they are driving too close.

Some roads in my town have dedicated bike lanes. Some have 'bike lane-share' symbols. Some have no separate lane at all. Sometimes there is a bike lane that is also where people park and place their grass clippings, felled tree branches, and pretty flowers prematurely pulled (btw, thanks for the flowers). But this plethora of experiences creates confusion and uncertainty for everyone.

3. Feedback is really important when you are the one doing things out of the ordinary.

There is one 4 way intersection on my route that crosses a busy road. The stop light is triggered via a signal. Cars trigger it without even thinking. Luckily for me, there is also a bike trigger. In the middle of the lane, there is a little picture of a bike. I have seen this picture other places around town, and in those places it has a sign that says 'hail, biker. stand over this symbol and the light will change for you'. The problem is, even when cars are on the signal, it seems like the light takes for ever to change. When I stand on the signal, it seems to take for ever X2 to change. And as cars start lining up behind me, the pressure starts to build. Am I standing on the signal right? Have I been standing here for 2 minutes doing nothing? Are people going to start honking at me? The lack of feedback from this experience triggers intense self doubt, and some times actual anger from my fellow car-bound road companions.

4. Confusion and Uncertainty is Mentally and Emotionally taxing.

I am so lucky in the 21st century that I get to spend so little time worrying about safety or procuring my lower-level needs in hierarchy of needs, and so much time thinking about how to actualize myself. Still, I would prefer spend even less time thinking about whether my life is in danger.

Likewise, I imagine secondary audiences of websites don't enjoy spending time figuring out how to do a task online, they just want to do it. Let's practice compassion and let them spend as much time as possible worrying about self-actualization.

Thankfully, solving accessibility issues on the web is so much easier than solving the problem of modern transportation.

Have you ever experienced being a 'secondary audience'? What was that like?