Building Software With Empathy (Intern Files #025)

Chase Chapman , 2019 HF Intern,  TryCrypto

Chase Chapman, 2019 HF Intern, TryCrypto

Falling down the rabbit hole

Growing up as a girl in Michigan, I was never exposed to technology as something that was accessible to me, it was always a reach and a little bit scary. When I got into blockchain, I really struggled to find common ground — I didn’t have the foundational knowledge I needed to understand it. I would get really excited about this ability to democratize data and digital governance, but embedded into the ability to democratize data was the question is data not democratic now? As I learned more about current systems, I became even more involved and excited about the impact blockchain could have on the world.

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Sold on the ethos and optimistic about the technology, I started to try to use decentralized apps and quickly realized the tools that existed to use this technology were not meant for people like me, who are not technically savvy. Intellectually, I was so excited about the potential for blockchain but I felt stuck in this situation where I couldn’t actually use the technology. So, I started to learn, explore, and get involved in the industry. Since then I’ve learned more about cryptography, serverless systems, and programming than I ever thought I could.

Reprogramming my brain

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But as I get more involved in tech, I’ve noticed that I think differently when I’m interacting with technology — I’ve reprogrammed my brain. When something doesn’t work or when I can’t find a button on a website, I don’t just get frustrated and close out of the page. I stop and think “if I were the developer of this site, where would I put the button?” I start to think more critically, I read the words on the page instead of just clicking on random buttons. But successful user experiences don’t force users to empathize with those who built it. Successful user experiences are seamless, no thought is required, and that’s a beautiful thing but it requires empathizing with end-users who don’t think like developers.

Working at TryCrypto this summer, I’ve had the ability to travel a bit between Mountain View, where my co-founder is located, and Michigan, where I live. One of the best parts about traveling is that I can directly compare working in Silicon Valley to working in Michigan. While the tech scene in Michigan (specifically, Detroit and Ann Arbor) is certainly similar to that of Silicon Valley, there are some big differences that stand out (based on my experience) and the most notable of those differences is the ability to empathize with users.

Empathy as a framework

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Empathy is something we don’t think much about. Culturally, we don’t really talk about it because having empathy isn’t easy. It requires placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, but having empathy isn’t just about imagination, it’s about experience too. Empathy comes from a place of saying “I’ve been somewhere similar and I can imagine how that might feel”.

I think often we think about empathy as this intangible thing — but what if we started to consider empathy as a framework? At TryCrypto, we’ve taken an approach of product development guided by empathy. It’s an approach that doesn’t just say “who is using our product and what are their pain points?” Instead, product development involves fully immersing ourselves in the place of a user and much of that approach stems from my own non-technical background growing up around people who are not technical. It means listening, watching, working to understand the end-user and that’s not always easy, especially if you’re immersed in the culture of Silicon Valley, where almost everyone works in tech.

When you run with faster runners, you’re going to get faster, even if you’re the slowest in the pack.

But that prompts the question, what does it mean to be “faster”?

I think many people have the perspective that working in Silicon Valley is beneficial for people who are building tech because you’re surrounded by other people also in tech. But when you interact all day with people who have very high technical literacy, you’re going to build tools that are geared more towards technically savvy people than people who struggle with technology. It comes down to exposure and the ability to empathize with an end-user.

What’s so interesting about Michigan to me is that the tech community is thriving — the existence of Hacker Fellows (and other programs like it) is evidence of that — but you don’t have to be exclusively around people in tech and that’s where the value of Michigan really is.

Addressing real pain points

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That’s not to say products coming out of the Bay Area aren’t helpful, but there are so many products that haven’t been built or haven’t seen adoption because they’re just not properly addressing the real needs of users. Blockchain has so many great examples of this problem: dozens of companies have built wallets for managing cryptocurrency, but very few have addressed the real problem that users have with them: they’re complicated, confusing, and scary.

Why haven’t they addressed that need?

Go to a blockchain meetup and nine times out of ten, you’ll see all technical or semi-technical people there. These are developers building tools for developers with the expectation that somehow end-users will find a way to use them (hint: they won’t).

Not too long ago, I decided to sit down with a friend of mine and asked her to purchase a CryptoKitty. It took over two hours. Every second was well spent because that conversation led to so many insights about how users interact with the components I’m so used to navigating.

After our 2+ hours of CryptoKitty fun, she was still very confused and a little frustrated

After our 2+ hours of CryptoKitty fun, she was still very confused and a little frustrated

That conversation happened in Michigan and it was more insightful because of it.

My friend isn’t bad with technology, she’s just not exposed to the general conversation around blockchain and cryptocurrency and as a result, the things I take for granted (having a piece of software installed, knowing how to find my address) she had to figure out on her own. It brought me back to how it feels to not know about any of this stuff and that conversation alone has driven several product decisions since.

Building technology for people

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That’s not to say these conversations can’t happen in Silicon Valley or that people in Michigan are not technically savvy — it’s about the fact that Michigan has more diversity of thought and profession, which better represents end-users, their wants, needs, and habits. That representation gives people like me, who are building software, a much more realistic taste of which pain points are pressing and how to solve them.

Developers who want to be surrounded by other people building technology in Michigan can do just that — Hacker Fellows connects and supports people building technology enabling them to explore and engage with the rich diversity of thought that Michigan has to offer.

At the end of the day, technology is about people — it’s a tool to help improve day-to-day life. 

But if you don’t understand people, pain points and frustrations, how can you build technology for them?


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Chase Chapman is a 2019 Hacker Fellows intern and founder of TryCrypto, blockchain tools your grandma can use. Chase is studying Business at the University of Michigan. Check out her Medium blog for more stories.