The psychological basis of nerdiness and its impact on user-centred design


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This talk will be based on William’s short paper to the CHI and British HCI conferences in 2009 about his large-scale study of IT workers.
The application of empathizing-systemizing tests found that technologists have substantially reduced empathizing skills and consequently have real difficulty in appreciating that others do not understand technology in the same way they do.
This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has worked in the IT industry for any length of time, but it does serve as justification for many of the activities undertaken in user-centred design.

Published in: Design, Technology

The psychological basis of nerdiness and its impact on user-centred design

  1. 1. syntagm The Psychological Basis of Nerdiness and its Implications for UCD William Hudson User Experience Strategist
  2. 2. syntagmsyntagm Empathizing/Systemizing Theory • Large-scale study of 450 IT workers (see Hudson, William, 2009, Reduced Empathizing Skills Increase Challenges for User-Centered Design, CHI 2009 Conference, Boston and British HCI Group Conference, Cambridge) Nerdiness & UCD 2
  3. 3. Empathizers 3Nerdiness & UCD
  4. 4. syntagmsyntagm Systemizers
  5. 5. Please select 1 bag at a time
  6. 6. Nerdiness & UCD 6
  7. 7. Please select 1 bag at a time
  8. 8. RTFM Nerdiness & UCD 8
  9. 9. syntagmsyntagm The Perfect User Visual acuity of an eagle Memory of an elephant Navigation skills of a bat Stamina of a camel Dexterity of a monkey Copyright © Syntagm Ltd – 9Nerdiness & UCD
  10. 10. syntagmsyntagm Technologists have strong systemizing but reduced empathizing skills Nerdiness & UCD 10
  11. 11. syntagmsyntagm11Nerdiness & UCD There is a smaller effect for the few female technologists
  12. 12. syntagmsyntagm Men Women Systemizing Empathizing Empathizing Systemizing 12
  13. 13. syntagm Agile is Nerdy Too 13
  14. 14. syntagmsyntagm Agile Psychology • Agile was influenced by the highly regarded Lockheed Martin Skunk Works ®, responsible for some of the world’s most prestigious military aircraft – U2 – SR71 Blackbird – F-117 Nighthawk – F-22 Raptor Nerdiness & UCD 14
  15. 15. syntagmsyntagm Agile Psychology • Skunk Work® teams – Are small (10% to 25% of a ‘normal’ project) – Co-located (usually near the manufacturing facility) – Work to short time-scales – Use minimal documentation – Test products continuously – Restrict access to outsiders Nerdiness & UCD 15 (See
  16. 16. syntagmsyntagm Agile Psychology • So to a large extent, both Skunk Works® and Agile teams are isolated and introverted Nerdiness & UCD 16
  17. 17. syntagmsyntagm Agile Psychology • Isolation and introversion may be desirable for building some things – jet fighters, for instance – The users of jet fighters are considered as just another system component • Isolation and introversion not so helpful with interactive systems intended for a broad range of users • So how do we need to change the Agile approach to user-centred design? Nerdiness & UCD 17
  18. 18. syntagmsyntagm Agile UCD • Involve real users • Increase empathy Nerdiness & UCD 18
  19. 19. syntagmsyntagm Increasing Empathy • Two types of empathy – Cognitive: being aware what someone is thinking – Affective: being aware what someone is feeling • Developers need to at least be aware that users may have different views or understandings of a problem and its potential solutions (cognitive empathy) • Partitioning UCD into a separate team or department is not realistic in small teams (using Agile approaches, for example) Nerdiness & UCD 19
  20. 20. syntagmsyntagm Increasing Empathy • Two points to consider – People-oriented people have higher EQ scores than technologists – Even the lowest EQ scores for women were above the average for men Nerdiness & UCD 20
  21. 21. syntagmsyntagm The Agile Team 21Nerdiness & UCD Empathy Barrier
  22. 22. syntagmsyntagm Increasing Empathy • Because of the ‘empathy barrier’ increasing the EQ balance in a team alone may not be sufficient to improve engagement with UCD • We need to consider other ways of increasing empathy for everyone in the team – Teaching it – Enhancing it – Applying empathy-promoting design techniques Nerdiness & UCD 22
  23. 23. syntagmsyntagm Increasing Empathy • Teaching it – ‘Mind Reading’ is an interactive DVD from Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues at the ARC • Enhancing it (drugs) – Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans Domes, G., M. Heinrichs, et al. (2007). "Oxytocin improves ‘mind-reading’ in humans." Biological Psychiatry 61(6): 731-733. • Enhancing it (technology) – Automated ‘mind reading’ Nerdiness & UCD 23
  24. 24. syntagmsyntagm Increasing Empathy • Teaching it Nerdiness & UCD 24 Baron-Cohen’s Mind Reading DVD (See
  25. 25. syntagmsyntagm Increasing Empathy • Enhancing it (technologically) Nerdiness & UCD 25 Rana Ayman el Kaliouby’s Auto-MR Software (from elKaliouby-2005-mindreading-machines.pdf)
  26. 26. syntagmsyntagm Empathetic Design • Research has found that empathy is related to specific components of the brain called mirror neurons • They are activated when performing a task but also when seeing the same task performed by others • To promote empathy we should rely on the adage ‘seeing is believing’ Nerdiness & UCD 26
  27. 27. syntagmsyntagm Field Research 27Nerdiness & UCD
  28. 28. syntagmsyntagm Personas 28Nerdiness & UCD
  29. 29. syntagmsyntagm Usability Testing 29Nerdiness & UCD
  30. 30. syntagmsyntagm Empathy-Assistive Technology
  31. 31. syntagmsyntagm Agile UX & UCD One-Day Course - Hamburg, 5 November 2010 - London, 15 November 2010 Persona-Driven Design Workshop - London, 6 December 2010 • A prime goal for both the course and the workshop is to address when and how to promote empathy in design • Visit Nerdiness & UCD 31
  32. 32. syntagm32 Nerdiness & UCD