Editing with empathy

By Christina Tolliver

A few years ago, I heard that participating in humanitarian work, such as helping the victims of a natural disaster, has a much greater effect on a person than only hearing about the need for aid. Many scientists believe the reason for the difference is our mirror neurons—the cells in our brains that cause us to feel what another person feels and to reflect it back to them.

Hearing about a natural disaster generates sympathy, which is to feel pity or sorrow for the pain another being experiences. But seeing others suffer activates mirror neurons and, thus, generates empathy, which is to feel the pain the other being experiences. And, when we feel the pain of another, we are motivated to do something to help them.

That’s why usability testing and other forms of user observation, such as Jared Spool’s field visits, are so effective. Unless we observe our users, we merely sympathize with them. We are free to speculate about their needs and design according to our own preferences. But, when we actually see users experiencing and interpreting our product in ways we could not have imagined, we develop an empathy for them that is grounded in reality. That empathy gives us enough motivation to sacrifice our darling designs and provide what users really need.

So I encourage you to cultivate empathy for your customers through usability testing or some other form of user observation. It will make you a more effective editor. As Steve Krug explains in his wonderful book Don’t Make Me Think!, usability testing doesn’t have to be super-rigorous to be valuable. My team has found that even little tests with colleagues (who are not involved in the project) can be enlightening.

Your writers are also your customers, and I encourage you to cultivate empathy for them as well. Talk to your writers about their work. Ask about their problems, questions, fears, and goals. One of the greatest challenges writers face today is working in a CMS. If your writers work in a CMS, ask one of them to walk you through the process of creating a typical piece of content. Even if you’re familiar with the CMS, as the writer shows you the process, you’ll probably gain a greater appreciation for how difficult their work in the CMS can be.

This entry was posted in Editing, Uncategorized by ctolliver. Bookmark the permalink.

About ctolliver

Christina Tolliver edits web and print content at a statistical analysis and quality improvement software company. Christina worked as a technical writer for a long time and learned many hard lessons about content through trial and error. Now, she is learning many hard lessons about web editing through trial and error. Christina enjoys falling off her mountain bike onto the hard, rocky trails of central Pennsylvania where she lives. And that makes sense if you think about it.

One thought on “Editing with empathy

  1. Your framing of editing with empathy–how our behavior is changed when we really empathize–is a useful way to look at this topic, and it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. One of the most common pitfalls I’ve seen in designing or redesigning a website is the notion that decisions made based on what the internal stakeholders prefer are as good as decisions based on actual tests with actual users. It’s difficult to put oneself in the users’ shoes until you actually witness what it’s like for them. And if you’re working with a team, it can become a battle of wills–with people arguing over what amounts to personal preferences. It can really tank a project and a team. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

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