Tackling the impossibility of empathy in videotelephony for digital natives

  • February 2018 – June 2019: How interaction design can help to envision a tangible communication device for users that experience a physical gap?

  • September 2020 – … : How to tackle the impossibility of empathy in videotelephony for digital natives?

TACKLING THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF EMPATHY IN VIDEOTELEPHONY FOR DIGITAL NATIVES

Keywords: Interaction Design, Empathy, Digital Natives, Research Through Design, Videotelephony, Computer-Mediated Communication


Abstract Empathy in the digital era receives close attention within both practice and theory. This year humans were locked in their homes with a rise of need in digital communication means. The technology of videotelephony has been widely available for years, but recently it has become more widespread creating new debate areas for empathy in a digital world. This research aims to tackle the impossibility of empathy in videotelephony for digital natives, highlighting the sensorial richness of interaction design. Starting from the researcher’s embodied experience, the aim of the study is to investigate how an interaction designer can work with and through the body to marginalize empathy as emotion and to sensitize digital natives to what they perceive as empathy. 

In digital societies, empathy becomes suppressed by technology, causing an empathy crisis among digital natives (Turkle 2015). Furthermore, the notion of empathy is misunderstood in the field of design (Bennett and Rosner 2019), empathy as in feeling what others feel is not possible nor ethical (Pedwell 2014). Therefore this research looks into what could interaction designs and technology’s role be in allowing empathy. Also, how to debate to use the term empathy correctly in a design context. The study seeks answers by dwelling on the iterative process of designing and analysing, both feeding into each other. 

INTRODUCTION

This research arises from the researcher’s first-person embodied experience:

“I was born in Turkey and have been working as a designer-researcher and an educator of interaction design in Estonia since 2017. Thus, I have been physically separated from my family by distance for several years now. Furthermore, I am a digital native, born in 1993, grew up in an electronics-filled and increasingly online and socially-networked world, and I am a “native speaker of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” (Prensky 2001). Unsurprisingly, I have developed frequent computer-mediated communication (CMC) behaviour to connect with my family back home. 

CMC involves various forms of human to human communication through networked computers, which may be synchronous or asynchronous and encompasses one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many exchanges of text, audio, and/or video messages (Lee & Oh 2015). My personal communication tends to be, videotelephony which is real-time, synchronous audio-visual communication. Videotelephony allows me to reconnect with my loved ones despite the physical gap between us. However, it also caused me to experience a lack of emotional connection with them in recent years. I started yearning for eye contact with my loved ones, observing their gestures, their smell so on. This distanced feeling grew with time when the COVID19 pandemic prevented me from leaving Tallinn and visiting my family in Istanbul for over a year. Getting together by the video calls started to feel more and more hollow, I couldn’t feel my loved ones’ joy, pain, or fear through the screen. I began to think that I am no longer an empathic person.

The notion of empathy is a topic that attracts my attention not only in my personal life but also in my professional life. As a lecturer of interaction design, I have the entitlement to introduce the young soon to be interaction designers to what interaction design is. And being an empathic person is an attribute that we cherish seeing in interaction design students. However, when I read more into it, I became alarmed by the way empathy is discussed in the design world.”


Empathy is suppressed by technologies that digital natives rely on

Empathy in the digital era receives close attention within both practice and theory. Sherry Turkle (2015), borrows concepts from psychologists, neuroscientists, and the field of human-computer interaction. Turkle assembles data (mostly in the form of stories and anecdotes) about an empathy crisis and the role of technology. She points out that regardless of its many advantages when used with intention, technology and CMC have fundamental downsides, the extreme of which relates to a decrease in digital natives’ capacity for empathy: an empathy crisis

The notion of an empathy crisis among digital natives resonates with the researcher’s first-person experience with videotelephony where a feeling of distance arose between the researcher-designer and her loved ones in Turkey. According to Turkle (2015), excessive usage of CMC has impaired digital natives’ potential to relate to each other, particularly in face-to-face conversational settings. Since such conversations are crucial to humans’ moral development; without them, digital natives have trouble establishing bonds of empathy with others. Videotelephony allows people to adapt to face-to-face communication remotely. However, in a videotelephony setting, it is not possible to build eye contact or to fully observe the body language of the person across the screen.

Empathy is misunderstood and oversimplified in the field of design

Interaction design shapes everyday lives through digital artefacts and aims to create experiences and interactions that enable humans to achieve their objective(s) in the most pleasant way possible (Smith 2002). Understanding human needs, behaviours, and values become the core abilities of an interaction designer (Teo 2020). 

A variety of scholars discuss how the design thinking approach operates as a means of assuring designers that they have superior training and ethical tools to quickly evaluate and innovate on problems in domains they are unfamiliar with, a phenomenon Lilly Irani and Six Silberman (2016) defines as the “design saviour” complex. This complex also appears in the understanding of empathy in the design field. The concept of empathy-building is commonly employed as a user research tool in design, through for example observation (Leonard and Rayport 1997), experience prototyping (Buchenau and Suri 2000), role-playing (Kaario et al 2009), and empathy maps (Gray 2017). Accordingly, over the past years, terms like user-centred design (Norman 1986) or human-centred design (Cooley 1989) became popular in the field. Empathize is the name commonly given to the initial stage of the design thinking process in which designers seek to understand their intended users to inform technology development (Bennett and Rosner 2019). The following stages can be summarized as Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. In the Empathize stage, the goal is to gain an empathic understanding of the people you are designing for. This process involves observing, engaging, and empathizing with the people you are designing for, to understand their experiences and motivations (Dam and Teo 2019). 

This research proposes that the realization of such empathic design methods may bring with it unintended consequences that could cause harm in how designers perceive empathy and an oversimplification of the term. Carolyn Pedwell (2014), argues that when empathy is understood as the experience of co-feeling, it risks obscuring the complicity in the wider relations of power in which marginalization, oppression, and suffering occur. Therefore, empathy is not and cannot be something to be done, built, or modelled within the field of design (Bennett and Rosner 2019).

Empathy as in feeling what others feel is not possible nor ethical

Empathy is materialised in different ways in different spheres, through different media, and through different types of encounters (Pedwell 2014). Contrary to popular belief, the concept of empathy is not only being praised but also being criticised in academic venues. Humanities scholars such as Paul Bloom (2017), Carolyn Pedwell (2014), Namwali Serpells (2019), and Candace Vogler (2018) have expressed their criticism for empathy and its limits. Bloom (2017) argues that in order to criticise empathy, an understanding of its different facades is necessary: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is about understanding others’ emotions, whereas emotional empathy is about feeling and experiencing others’ emotions. Bloom (2014) illustrates an analogy to explain why empathy, of the emotional type, leads to unfair, biased, and tragic results: “Empathy is like a spotlight that has a narrow focus, one that shines most brightly on those we love and gets dim for those who are strange or different or frightening”

Pedwell (2014) points out that “the possibilities of entering another’s subjective and psychic world accurately are both tenuous and ethically fraught.” Similar to Pedwell (2014), Serpells (2019) also claims that feeling what others are feeling and can empathize with their experience is not possible in real life, nor is it ethical. Vogler (2018) discusses the barriers of empathy by claiming that humans are strongly inclined to use themselves as guides to comprehend how things are for others. She argues that this may cause a failed attempt for empathy as it is harder to try to get a sense for someone else than it is to stick with own perspective.

Technology is blending in the world we live in. Interaction designers have the potential to provide enriched interactions with technology. Furthermore, the interactions can be enhanced by exploiting multisensorial technologies. The perception of reality is determined by human senses. In other words, the experience of reality is a combination of sensory information and sense-making mechanisms related to that information in the brain (Narumi 2016). Even from childhood, humans learn how to use their senses to make sense of the world around them. Human senses also play an essential role in emotional processing, learning, and interpretation, furthermore, emotions can be influenced by sensory information (Thomson et al 2010). Pedwell (2014) discusses that empathy is materialised in different ways in different spheres, through different media, and through different types of encounters. This research aims at marginalizing empathy as emotion and sensitizing digital natives to what they perceive as empathy.

The sensorial richness of interaction design

It is a common misconception that interaction design is seen as designing digital interfaces, however, interaction design shapes everyday life through digital artefacts (Smith 2002) and does not necessarily dwell in digital interface creation. Interaction design is the approach of designing with a focus on the impacts and interactions between humans and technology. Even though the human senses when interacting with technology are restricted (Obrist et. al 2016), it is crucial to determine the meaningful design space that unlocks the potential of the sensorial richness of interaction design.

The interpersonal encounters with others are characterised by sensory exchanges, and this relation has and have long since been part of sociological analysis (Vannini et al 2012) with a focus on human-social interaction and also represented by the interest of designers. For instance, “Hug Shirt” pioneered sensorial digital communication with the world’s first haptic telecommunication wearable invented by CuteCircuit in 2002 (CuteCircuit 2020). “Hugvie” (Kuwamura et al 2013) was designed as a physical medium to build conversations with others through hugs. Although senses are being articulated in interaction design venues in the interest of communications, the potential of the experiences the multisensorial technologies can deliver is still largely unexplored especially in the context of empathy. The goal of the research is to sensitize digital natives to what they perceive as empathy. And to meaningfully stimulate human senses in videotelephony interactions. To meet this challenge, a better understanding of digital natives videotelephony behaviours in relation to empathy is required.

METHODOLOGY

To tackle the impossibility of empathy in videotelephony for digital natives, research through design (RtD) (Frayling 1993) is conducted. RtD is a continuous and iterative process of designing and reflecting, both feeding into each other. The approach of RtD compounds a conscious investigation of the creative production of artefacts wherein the knowledge is generated by understanding the current state of the research area (Olson and Kellogg 2014). This approach guides the study to articulate the created knowledge from different angles with multiple tools, such as making, reading, writing and questioning with participatory methods. 

Figure 1 illustrates this studies’ process more in-depth. It is a dynamic research sketch, a combination of four pillars, each representing one year of the doctoral study. The research question (RQ) is divided into four main questions. As results of research experiments (X), theory extensions (T), and qualitative data collection (RQ) the question evolves. Research experiments, for example, X1, is expected to dialect to a direct (T1) and indirect (T2) theory extension, formulating new directions for the next experiments (X2). The prototyping process is iterative, as the research and design evolve, the generated knowledge (K) is expected to dwell into a final prototype (P4) formed by the RtD process.

Figure 1. Dynamic Research Sketch

Cultural probe kit study

This section explains the preliminary research where the cultural probe kit study took place. As discussed previously, this research emerged from different views on empathy in the scholar world and the researcher’s embodied experiences as a digital native. Therefore, to better understand digital natives behaviours in relation to empathy, sensually enriched cultural probes were designed. Five participants were recruited to join the study. In this study, participants were invited to join an experiment to reflect on the different scenarios regarding videotelephony. The kits were handed out to the participants’ addresses and collected back from the same location after a week. 

The kits (Figure 2) included objects and instructions to complete several tasks in relation to digital communication. The instructions of the tasks were written on postcards, to evoke a feeling of analogue communication with the participants. The participants were primarily tasked to communicate with one of their selected loved ones through video calls while completing secondary tasks. Furthermore, the participants were tasked to self-report and self-document. All the participants were international students from the Estonian Academy of Arts living in Tallinn for their studies. They were born between 1990-1995 outside of Estonia.

The cultural probe kits consisted of seven stages: 1) understanding participants’ social circle; 2) understanding what type of CMC devices the participants use; 3) inviting the participants reflect on the distance between them and their loved one; 4) understanding the role of tactile sensations during a video call; 5) inviting the participants reflect on their mental state during a video call where their hand movement is blocked; 6) understanding whether the participants’ feel their loved ones’ presence while talking via a video call; 7) inviting the participants reflect on the process and think about their videotelephony behaviour. All stages were self-reported and self-documented with the help of tools provided in the cultural probe kit. 

Table 1 illustrates the results of the cultural probe kits. The preliminary research of the cultural probe kit study revealed that the digital natives felt a variety of emotions while talking via video calls. However, they self-reported that they had difficulties feeling the presence of their loved ones. This resonates with the researcher’s first-person experience with videotelephony where a feeling of distance arose between the researcher-designer and her loved ones in Turkey. Often the essential qualities of the body language are hidden in the videotelephony settings and this appears as a lack of presence between the two parties of the video call.

CONCLUSION

This text discussed the position of the study. First, the reasons to conduct this research were represented. Then the methodology was introduced together with the evaluation of a cultural probe kit study. The cultural probe kit study was conducted to better understand digital natives’ videotelephony behaviours in relation to empathy. 

The preliminary research of the cultural probe kit study revealed that the digital natives felt a variety of emotions while talking via video calls. However, they self-reported that they had difficulties feeling the presence of their loved ones. This resonates with the researcher’s first-person experience with videotelephony where a feeling of distance arose between the researcher-designer and her loved ones in Turkey. Often the essential qualities of the body language are hidden in the videotelephony settings and this appears as a lack of presence between the two parties of the video call. 

After understanding digital natives’ videotelephony behaviours in relation to empathy, the course of action of the research is to design the first research experiment to marginalize empathy as emotion. The goal of this experiment will be sensitizing digital natives to what they perceive as empathy. And to meaningfully stimulate human senses in videotelephony interactions. To meet this challenge, which tactile, gustatory, and olfactory experiences an interaction designer can design with, for and through empathy should be determined. 

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See my CV on the Estonian Research Information System: https://www.etis.ee/CV/Nesli_Hazal_Akbulut/

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