06.12.17
Brian LaRossa | Opinions

Privilege-Centered Design


“The reader you construct in your imagination changes the way you write almost without your noticing it.” —Verlyn Klinkenborg
Yes, and that imagined reader holds sway in your head whether you consciously construct them or not. Opt out of crafting an image of your reader, and your brain will step in as a proxy. You’ll end up writing for yourself. A romantic notion that runs counter to the primary circuitry of the written word. Language evolved from a hardwired need to connect with others. That doesn't mean internalizing your audience is easy. Pulling them in requires focused effort. They are not you.

We also talk about customer empathy in product design. Crowing like we invented the sun, products MUST be built in direct response to a customer’s needs! We stand quietly in their space, hoping our gravity doesn't alter their orbit. Straining to notice what it feels like to notice them. Running our discoveries back to cold conference rooms. But experiences are overflowing with data—more than our heads could possibly hold. The details splash out until our own story is all that remains. Just like every other survivable trait, memory’s lead gene is efficiency. We forget details, but we also invent them. Whatever it takes to shore up our narrative. The customer we construct in our imagination bears the planetary weight of shaping what will be. We are responsible for the butterflies in our brain and the hurricanes they create in the world.
“The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one.” —Erwin Schrödinger
It matters whom we observe. It matters how we imagine. It plots a course through the design process, a path that is wrought with consequence. If we only observe and imagine those who resemble ourselves, then what we call empathy is merely introspection. The majority of designers are white. There is a privileged ouroboros of customer empathy that leaves so many others out of the loop. Awakening to privilege is often framed as an irreversible process—like biting an apple. But “woke” is not a permanent state for those of us in the majority. Privilege is a poppy field. It’s impossible to witness the way your own snoring prevents others from sleeping. Still, we have an obligation to wrench our eyes open again and again, an obligation to look inclusively (not just internally), an obligation to empathize with the whole audience and imagine them with care, and an obligation to be sensitive to the margins around us. If we don’t succeed in holding ourselves responsible for meeting these baseline obligations, then the things we design will only serve to keep others like us asleep.
"The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all." —Ta-Nehisi Coates

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series. This essay focused on the intersection of customer empathy and equity. The second essay focuses on the intersection of customer empathy and book publishing.

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