What a 500-year-old book teaches us about UX and empathy.

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Matejko. In background: Frombork Cathedral
Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Matejko. In background: Frombork Cathedral
Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Matejko. In background: Frombork Cathedral.

For nearly 500 years, astronomers have embraced the belief that the Earth travels around the Sun. Nicolaus Copernicus wrote about his heliocentric theory in his 1543 book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Copernicus’ work revolutionized astronomy. However, at the time, many people did not agree with his theories. Scholars and clergy ridiculed Copernicus, and in 1616, the Vatican banned his book. Luckily, Copernicus had the forethought to die shortly after its first publication. He avoided the worst his critics had to offer.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Defense of the Sampo
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Defense of the Sampo
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Defense of the Sampo

We can understand, and even partially excuse, the ignorance of the people in the 16th century. After all, they feared the unknown. Witches, lunar eclipses, and even red-haired people terrified the populations of Europe.¹


Illustration of people in a crowd
Illustration of people in a crowd

The moral philosopher John Rawls spoke of empathy in his book A Theory of Justice. Although he never directly referred to empathy in his text, he orchestrated a prime example of empathetic thinking. He constructed a thought experiment by asking people to design their own society.

Watercolor illustration of Earth
Watercolor illustration of Earth

In Rawls’ experiment, you design your version of a perfect society. You must first decide how you want your society to function, choosing from among several possible freedoms, liberties, rules, regulations, and employment opportunities. For example, perhaps only women with a high IQ are permitted to vote. Maybe only citizens capable of 100 sit-ups are allowed to eat fattening foods. Or, perhaps only left-handed people are entrusted to raise children. …


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Photo by Samuel Fyfe on Unsplash

Hiawatha Service 332 bypasses the steady state of arterial road traffic between Milwaukee and Chicago. In 89 minutes, the train’s riders depart Miltown’s intermodal gateway and eventually find themselves in the heart of Chicago’s Union Station. Long an early morning refuge for blurry-eyed salespeople and late-night party-goers, Hiawatha attracts a wide assortment of professions, cultures, and hangovers. However, each rider’s trip is unique, because each is a selective perception.

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Hiawatha Service 332

Commuters and tourists alike fall asleep in peaceful unison within minutes of the train’s departure. Gaping mouths and contorted postures fill each carriage like dozens of goldfish placed on blue fabric seats, as the constant hum of the track passes beneath. Dah-dunk. Dah-dunk. Dah-dunk. The rhythm lulls even the most caffeinated to sleep. Some riders doze motionless. Others roll and fidget. They close their eyes. They wear headphones. They curl into the fetal position and form makeshift pillows out of jackets and sweaters. …


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“Frog, Golden Eyes, Macro”​ by Josch13, Pixabay, used under CC0

When designing experiences, favor what users already know.

NARRATED AUDIO VERSION OF THE ARTICLE

Michigan J. Frog was unlike any other frog. He sang. He danced. He was destined for stardom. In Warner Bros.’ 1955 cartoon, One Froggy Evening, a construction worker freed Michigan from a time capsule buried within a recently demolished building’s cornerstone. Upon reaching the open air, the frog stood and sang, “Hello my baby, hello my honey. Hello, my ragtime gal. Send me a kiss by wire. Baby, my heart’s on fire.” …

About

Edward Stull

User experience designer and researcher | author of UX Fundamentals for Non-UX Professionals http://amzn.com/1484238109

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