Taking an Empathetic Approach to User Experience

As the founder of Story+Structure, CEO Chokdee Rutirasiri has been designing human-centered solutions for the private and public sectors since 1995. He’s led projects resulting in new user experiences in higher education, human resources, publishing, manufacturing, health care and non-profits. Prior to founding Story+Structure, Rutirasiri held roles as a strategist, designer and developer for UMass Boston, MassArt and Worcester State College. He also spent some time on muni bond trading desks in Chicago and Boston. Rutirasiri took time to speak with CIO Insight on a variety of topics, including the elements of good design, empathy in a capitalist world and what it means to be a good host.

CIO Insight: You recently lead a discussion at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium on taking an empathetic approach to the user experience. Can you expand a little on what that means and why it’s important to take this approach?

Chokdee Rutirasiri: Empathy is the key to opening up the wants, needs and behavior of what people are seeking in their experiences. Whether you’re a services company or a product company, at the end of the day you’re in the people business. Staff. Clients. Customers. Constituents. Stakeholders. Stockholders. All people. People are beautifully complex and ever evolving. What we say and what we do are often two different things. When you practice empathy, you begin to develop a deep understanding of those you’re serving. And with this understanding, you can be more intentional with your strategic decisions.

CIO Insight: You’re the CEO of Story+Structure, a design firm that puts a strong emphasis on human-centered design. How does this differ from other established approaches to the workplace specifically and technology in general?

Rutirasiri: Lots of times people try to solve a problem by throwing a piece of technology at it or designing for their preferences, ignoring the fact that they are not the end user. Then solutions end up being overly engineered or complicated, leading to poor user adoption. This is because you were addressing your own frustration, not your customer’s. A human-centered approach simply puts the human being right at the center of every question. What do you need? How does this make you feel? How might this solution help you reach your aspirations and goals? An empathetic approach is respectful and intentional.

CIO Insight: I understand designers Charles and Ray Eames were a big influence on you. How so?

Rutirasiri: Oh my, where does one even begin? What made the Eames Office a special shop was imagination. Charles, Ray and the whole shop looked at life in a different way.

The Top 3 lessons for me include:

1. Design flows from learning and knowing who you are serving.

This is fundamental to the iterative, rapid prototyping process at the core of human-centered design. You gather information about your target audience. You prototype solutions quickly and cheaply. You test it. You find out answers to some basic questions. You learn. You go back to the design and iterate. Repeat. 

2. Design is about being a good host.

When you invite someone over for dinner, you usually clean your place, set the table, prepare delicious foods your guests would enjoy, offer a drink when they enter your home, catch up on life, and then sit down to eat at the proper time with more wine and banter. Your actions show thoughtfulness and intention. That is what good design is. Is it meeting basic needs? Is the experience enjoyable? Do I feel an emotional connection to the experience or the people involved?

3. Eventually, everything connects.

We live in an ecosystem. Everything eventually connects. Good design is about being mindful of that connection. It’s about thinking and being holistic in your approach to designing, developing and supporting solutions.

CIO Insight: Can their design philosophies be applied to IT and to, say, mobile app design?

Rutirasiri: Often times we look at things in a sort of myopic way. Let’s look at the “I” and the “T” here. Information is currency. It has been for a long time but now its value is more complex and meaningful. Technology continues to advance and connect all of us at such a crazy pace. To understand and leverage the true value of information and harness technology effectively, one must be able to understand the fundamentals of who you are serving, what it takes to be a good host, and how it all connects from online to mobile to real life. Personally I think we add “experience” to the IT: Information Technology Experience.

CIO Insight: Who has inspired your career and outlook that you’ve known personally?

Rutirasiri: Two people come to mind: my mother, Varunee Rutirasiri, and my Chief Design Officer, Shaun Gummere. My mother is a mixture of empathy, thoughtfulness and tenacity. Shaun taught me the fundamentals of good design and mindfulness as we look to solve problems through design. Shaun said ‘we need to treat one another online as we would in real life.’ He taught be about how to be intentional and respectful of the people we are designing for and those who need to support the solution.

CIO Insight: One of the job titles at your firm, aside from other traditionally named roles, is “Director of Client Happiness.” That may be the most intimidating job title in the world, as it seems to require being happy and making sure others are happy as well, which can be quite a challenge on both ends. Is the director entitled to occasionally having a bad day?

Rutirasiri: Ha! Kandace Gilligan is immune to having a bad day! When we created this position, we were trying to be mindful and thoughtful of our clients’ needs that extended beyond our project engagement. The success of our business is built upon the relationships we build with our clients and their needs as professionals and as a human being. It’s a good day when a client hugs you goodbye—which happens a lot these days.

CIO Insight: Kidding aside, in business, does being content and empathetic have to be mutually exclusive to staying competitive and growing revenue? There’s an eat-or-be-eaten mentality that often permeates tech and business in general. Does it have to be this way?

Rutirasiri: I grew up a Buddhist. I also have a business degree from Boston University. I always felt there was a place for compassion and empathy in a capitalist world. It’s about having the right intention. The world is quite large and there is plenty of business to go around. If you let capitalism define you, it could bring you down a less righteous and enjoyable path. But if you set out with the intention to “Do No Evil” like Google has tried, the world can and will look very different.

CIO Insight: There’s been a major shift over the last several years in how we work, where we work and how we collaborate with customers and colleagues. How does Story+Structure fit into this changing work dynamic?

Rutirasiri: For us, it’s about energy. Some folks on the team love the camaraderie we get from the physical office and being together, while others prefer the quietness and solitude of the road. Our goal as a firm is to provide folks with the most pleasant environment to be thoughtful and creative in. There are no set hours. We have an open vacation and sick time policy. Like with good design, our dynamic internally or client-facing is about being empathetic to one’s needs, being a good host and making sure we have connected all the dots respectfully.

Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.


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