The Importance of Empathy, pt2: It’s Good for You, Too!

In my recent blog post I described empathy as a valuable skill e.g. for UI design. But empathy is more than just “that UX soft skill thing”, “for making other people’s lives better”.

In this post I’ll give two real-life examples where a lack of empathy significantly reduced the chances of success in a competitive situation – which should give food for thought even to the most selfish person.

Example 1: Programming Contest Entries

In 2004 I entered a competition for Visual Studio add-ins organized by Roy Osherove. Surprise #1: I won. Surprise #2: The blog entry “About the add-in contest results” by Frans Bouma, one of the judges.

He wrote: “As a judge in the add-in contest, I had to test all the add-ins submitted, and judge them on quality and if they deserved any of the big prizes available. I can tell you it was hard. Not because there were so many good entries, but because it was often very hard to even get the submitted code to run, left alone to find any documentation what to do, how to get started.

Two years later I was in Frans’ shoes when I was a judge on a German contest for “code snippets” (more in the vein of small classes and helper methods than typical Visual Studio snippets e.g. for defining a constructor or a dependency property). I had to wade through more than 120 entries, with many lacking an easy to understand description of “what does it do”, “how do I use it”, etc.

In both contests, not nailing the basics substantially influenced the judgement and thus prevented some of the entries from ranking higher.

What went wrong?

One possible short answer: People were lazy. They did the fun part (writing code), but skipped on the non-fun part (writing docs, taking care of setup, etc.). But on the other hand, people tend to overcome their laziness if they feel some kind of urgency.

In the case of the contest, it seemed that many of the participants didn’t think that the out-of-the-box experience would be a factor in the review – which hints at a lack of empathy. Because with a bit of empathy, they would have thought about the situation of a contest judge.

Let’s imagine that you are a judge for a programming contest. You unpack the ZIP file containing a contest entry and you get a bunch of files you’ve never seen before.

What would be your first questions? Surely something like:

  • Where do I start?
  • Is there some kind of README?
  • Is there a short introduction, maybe an elevator pitch for this?
  • What is actually the problem this thing is trying to solve?
  • What are the first steps that I should take?
  • Can I simply follow the directions or are there prerequisites that aren't mentioned?
  • Is there a simple way to achieve at least something in the software quickly before I dig deeper into it?

Imagine you have to review not only one or two, but dozens and dozens of entries. Wouldn’t you be thankful for any entry that addresses these questions proactively?

Now, after looking at a judge’s perspective: Would you, as the author of a contest entry, assume that a judge instantly sees how awesome your software is, without any explanation beyond a few words? And that none of the other contestants would come up with the idea to make things easier for the judges and thus make a good first impression?

If you can now almost feel the pressure of competition – there’s the urgency required to overcome the laziness and the reluctance to do the things that are not fun.

Example 2: Conference Session Proposals

I’m one of the organizers of the community conference “dotnet Cologne” which is wildly successful and has become the largest conference of its kind in Germany. One of the many things to do for the organizers in the months before the conference is to review a huge number of session proposals entered during the “call for papers”. We have a web application where potential speakers enter their bio and the abstracts for their talks, which makes reviewing and comparing the entries pretty easy.

Unlike the first example, this is not so much of a time problem, even for a large number of entries. It’s more a problem of ”guesstimating” the scope and the quality of the session if a speaker isn’t one of the rock stars who consistently deliver a certain level of quality. After all, an abstract is just a declaration of intent, not the actual talk. And in many cases, the talk is not even fully fleshed out at the time of the call for papers.

Each year, there are a number of speakers who provide incomplete or very low-quality information and who in consequence are cut first while narrowing down the selection.

What went wrong?

The speakers somehow must have thought that the information they entered was good enough to be selected. Or that, if necessary, more information could be provided on demand at a later time.

Imagine you are in the situation where you have to judge a large number of speakers and their session proposal by reviewing the available information.

  • What impression would no or low-quality text in a speaker bio leave on you?
  • What would you think about a “more text upon request” in a session abstract?
  • Or a “coming later…” that never gets updated?

The larger the number of session proposals, the higher the chances that several speakers propose a session about the same topic (or at least have a large overlap of content). In this case there’s simply no reason to choose the speaker with the lower quality bio and abstract.

Now switch the perspective to that of a speaker: Wouldn’t you wonder what effect providing incomplete information would have? Especially if you compare it to the many speaker bios and session abstracts that you can read (for previous years) on the website of the exact conference that you want to speak at? And wouldn’t you want to avoid the impression that you either don’t have enough time to prepare the talk, or worse, aren’t able to present information in a compact and structured way?

Wrapping up

Empathy is not necessarily about being a nice person. It’s about being professional. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes, even if just for a moment, is always a good idea in general, but even more so in situations where you want something from someone else.

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