Were we at our happiest 15 million years ago, and what’s happened to the lingo of design?

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On the morning of 20 March, Reaktor Design Breakfast event took place in Helsinki. Evolved from a small, mostly local and IT focused company to an international one of strategy, design and engineering, Reaktor is perhaps one of the hottest companies in Finland. Known for its flat hierarchy and multiple prizes won for best place to work, Reaktor also hosts an array of tech and design events for the public.

The main speaker of the event was Katri Saarikivi, a cognitive neuroscientist from Helsinki University and one of the leading researchers and speakers on empathy particularly in digital environments. As always, her presentation was delightful: nicely flowing from empathy as a survival skill for humans 15 million years ago to empathy online and in modern day work organisations. Starting from such ancient setting was not only interesting in order to learn about empathy and its implications for humans throughout our history but, as it was noted, some researchers think 15 million years ago was when us humans were at our most happiest: living in forests and focusing on survival, way before invention of the first tools. Makes one think how much we really have evolved and to what direction…

From there we moved on to the concept of work that Saarikivi describes as “solving the problems of other human beings“, responding to others’ needs besides one’s own. Hence, according to Saarikivi, the need for work done by humans continues to be constant, despite any and all changes that might be coming due to advances in technology such as AI and machine learning.

“Empathy might be at the very core of our best problem-solving ability”

A part of the presentation was around human-centric work and human-centric design: highlighting the role of empathy in understanding the differences between people and thus working better together as well as better responding to others’ needs. The importance of collective intelligence was highlighted: “Best thinking, best work is more often than not a shared activity.” And one of the factors greatly affecting it was non-surprisingly empathy.

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Based on studies, Saarikivi also argued that humans are naturally selfless, empathic, and look after one another. However according to research, being in a position of power can reduce your empathy; and the higher your economic status, the lower your empathy skills. The research showed that brains of people in a position of power did not respond as much to other people’s pain as others’ did. Hence one could claim that having artificial positions of power – such as hierarchy in a work place – is not the way to increase empathy in an organisation.

 

IMG_0884As an example of an organisation not at all encouraging empathy or collective intelligence Saarikivi humorously (or, sadly?) showed us a photo of the main hall of the Finnish Parliament: a setting that encourages competition, highlights monologue, and gives no equal opportunity to all to speak nor respond. Saarikivi continued that disregard of emotions can lead to detrimental effects on work, collaboration, and information quality. This is something to consider especially in digital (work) environments, as the digital tools we still have largely transmit emotions rather poorly.

Empathy: Understand, Act, and Experience

During her presentation Saarikivi also discussed what can be seen as the three sides to empathy: understanding, acting, and experiencing. All three parts are needed for empathy; any one of them missing would not result in the real thing. Empathy skills, however, can be improved by practice. Your imagination is an important empathy skill, Saarikivi reminded, and reading fiction has indeed been scientifically proven to enhance our imagination and empathy skills.

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She walked us through each of the three aspects of empathy, and also continued on the interesting themes while responding to some participant questions. She pointed out that empathy is not an inherently a positive personality trait but a cognitive skill or mechanism. When asked about any negative aspects of said mechanism, Saarikivi mentioned narcissists. This turn tied it nicely back to the earlier discussion on benefits of flat organisations, narcissist not being interested in applying for positions in flat organisations as they don’t want to be equal wanting to rather rise higher than others. The whole presentation and discussion it encouraged was an interesting dive into empathy – a skill often mentioned as one of the most important tools of a Service Designer.

“Design’s focus has shifted from user needs to business needs”

After Katri Saarikivi’s presentation it was time for Reaktor’s own speakers: Hannu Oksa, Vesa Metsätähti, and Aapo Kojo and Vesa-Matti Mäkinen. Out of those presentations, Reaktor’s Creative Director Hannu Oksa’s resonated with me the most. He discussed the evolving role and ways of design, recently seemingly moving away from designing with and for the user towards focusing on the business needs. He also gave some chilling examples on the rise of fake news and purposely addictive design, stating this has made him deeply consider whether he is part of the problem and making it worse for others. Responsible design in the field of tech is not a topic I’ve often heard about – especially introduced by someone whose career is in the field. IMG_0889

Oksa also discussed the trend of worshipping data without criticism, despite all data being based on history: after all, historical data is exclusive, divisive, and by definition looks back rather than in the future. This hit very close to home, as in many situations and settings even fairly clever people have loudly expressed wanting to e.g. base their entire product or service development on data gathered digitally about their users (or potential users). That can perhaps be all good and well when trying to understand the past situations and coldly follow one’s users’ steps on some platform etc. with for example the help of A/B testing, however how would that give you actual information on WHY they have been doing what they have been doing on a deeper level? Would that tell you what they are like or what they will do in the future? And will that tell you if that is what they actually need or want, or is it simply a representation of the current (well, past) offering – not necessarily having anything to do with the user’s ideal scenario or solution? This kind of worshipping of (past!) data always gives me the chills and certainly wakes up the human-centric designer in me. Often, unfortunately, it’s not a battle worth fighting.

Another thought-provoking, perhaps accidental point was made by Vesa Metsätähti right at the start of his presentation, when he introduced his presentation topic radiot.fi by describing it being “an old service, at least 3-4 years old now.” Indeed, what is the life expectation of a service nowadays, and how long do we consider a service new?

The last presentation by Aapo Kojo and Vesa-Matti Mäkinen was “From Design Vision to Reality”. They introduced a project done for Finnair with a mix of physical and digital services. This gave some practical examples on how to work on a multi-platform project with focus on the customer experience in both the physical and digital parts of the same service.

The breakfast event was definitely worth attending, and hopefully there will be equally interesting ones organised in the near future!

 

The author Kaisla Saastamoinen is a Service Design Masters student with a passion for human-centric design, co-creation, and coffee.

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