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As I mentioned before, one of my part-time jobs during my Senior year in college was as a teaching assistant at the Supplementary Educational Center (SEC) in Cleveland. In addition to actual teaching, I did a variety of other chores as well including erecting and painting walls, setting up lighting, putting up NASA exhibits, etc. One of the worst tasks I was assigned was putting a straight pin into each one of a billion variously colored squares of construction paper. 

No, there weren’t really a billion. It just seemed that way. I sat at a desk with a very large pile of these 3” x 4” pieces of paper on my left and a large supply of straight pins straight ahead. I picked up a rectangle of paper, picked up a pin and poked it through in two places so that friction held the pin in place. Then I placed it in a pile on my right. I picked up another piece of paper and did the same thing. Again. And again. After awhile, I looked down and noticed that there was a large pile of these pinned pieces of paper on my right — and none left undone on the right. But I only “noticed” doing the first several. After that, my brain took a vacation. 

It’s not the only time my brain has taken a vacation when faced with a boring task. If I had a heavy industry job on an assembly line, I have no doubt that I’d be mangled or dead within a week. I just “tune out” of the task at hand. Perhaps you have experienced something similar while driving a well-known route. You get in your car to drive home from work — and then — you find yourself at home — and you have no conscious recollection of driving home! It’s an interesting phenomenon but not the one I’m going to explore in this post. 

Hopefully, you are also curious about why I had been assigned the task of putting these pins in all the various pieces of colored paper. 

Here’s the deal. The school system of Cleveland, like many others at the time, was very racially divided. There were many neighborhoods in the Cleveland area that were nearly 100% black and others which were nearly 100% white. One of the goals of the SEC was to bring kids from various neighborhood schools together so that they could have at least some experience interacting with kids of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Sadly, the situation is pretty much the same today as the map below from 2018 shows. (Red are majority black areas; orange are Hispanic; Green is Asian; Blue codes for white).

  So, cast your mind back to your time in the sixth grade (about 10-11 years old, typically). One day, you get in a bus and ride to downtown Cleveland and go into the Supplementary Educational Center and there are kids there from two other neighborhoods — kids you’ve never seen before and will likely never see again. Are you going to hang out with your friends? Or, are you going to walk up to some total stranger — of a different race — and introduce yourself and hang out with them for the day while you learn about American history or space science? I don’t have any conscious recollection of ever being a racist, but I have no doubt whatever that I would spend time with my own classmates; in fact, I would hang out with a subset of my classmates who were my friends. 

Guess what?

That’s exactly what the kids did as well. They hung out with their friends. The administrators of the SEC eventually noticed this and constructed a social engineering “solution.” They gave every kid who entered a tag of green, blue, yellow, or red. For the day, at least, the “greens” would be with each other. The “blues” would hang out together with other “blues.” And so on. 

Thus my assigned task of putting pins so that the kids would have a tag that they could pin on their clothes. This way, so the thinking went, people from diverse neighborhoods would end up in the “green” group. Sounds reasonable in theory.

If you’ve never actually been a kid. 

Or, if you’ve been a kid but have nonetheless convinced yourself that you weren’t. 

Or, if you’ve been a kid but you never think back on your actual experience in order to inform your design decisions when you’re designing for kids. 

Cast your mind back to when you were ten or eleven years old. You get on a bus and ride to downtown Cleveland and as you walk in the door of the Supplemental Educational Center, you’re handed a red tag and the two friends you typically hang out with are handed a green tag and a yellow tag. You discover that these tags will determine who you get to hang out with for the day. 

What would you do? 

I can tell you what the kids at the SEC did.  They immediately traded tags with other kids so they could still hang out with their own friends! Mostly, they could do this with kids in their own school. On rare occasions, they also went to kids from other schools in order to get the “right” tags so they could hang out with their friends. At least for a few moments, some of them did actually interact transactionally with kids of other races long enough to trade tags. 

Please understand. The administrators and teachers at the school weren’t dummies. But … ? Did they really think this ploy would work? 

I’m not saying that empathy is an infallible guide in design. Things change. It’s possible that your experience as a child would be quite different from what children today would do. Technology changes; culture changes; nutrition changes. 

Nonetheless, thinking back to your own experience as a child should at least be consulted when you’re designing for kids. Your experiences are vast. You can not only think back about your experience as a kid. You can think back about your own experiences of being thirsty or hungry or afraid or angry. If you’re designing for users who might be experiencing these states, that can be useful information. 

I’ll say it again. Your own experience is not an infallible guide. User testing is still necessary. Just because you might have liked something doesn’t mean others will. On the other hand, when it comes to any real world problem, the design space is huge. You can use your own experience as an inspiration to design and you can also use it as a first level check on design ideas. 


Myths of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy

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