Design is Professional Empathy

Today’s blog post is written by Emma Smith, Creative Technologist, PatronManager. 

I’ve purchased dozens, maybe hundreds, of tickets to shows over the years, but it wasn’t until three months ago when I was asked to redesign our new public ticketing site (coming at the end of this year!) that I gave serious thought to what makes for a good ticket buying experience. I started by looking at existing ticketing sites. In a way, they’re all the same — you pick a date, you select a seat, you pay, you get a ticket. But some of these sites are good, and some are bad. Why is this?

On the good sites, I felt relaxed. These sites inspired confidence and curiosity. On the best, I felt like I was hanging out with a witty new friend. What happens if I click here? Oh neat!

In my research, I was surprised to find that some of the best-looking sites turned out to be the hardest ones to use. I should have known better. Even the mighty Apple has struggled with usability — we all cringed as we watched them publicly work out the lumps in their Music app. Initially impressive, but the beauty wears thin once you’ve found yourself spending way too long trying to add a single song to a playlist, or trying to purchase a single ticket to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With notes in hand, I started drawing up designs. My goal was to design a site that’s smart but not snobby, well-dressed, earthy, and good-hearted. I wanted our clients (and consequently their patrons) to have one of the best ticketing sites on the Internet, whether they are a large conservatory or a smaller community theater.

We asked around and found several clients who were willing to give us feedback on our early work. Many of them really liked what we had done — this was nice to hear. It let us know we were on the right track.

Sometimes, however, a client would come back to us with completely unexpected criticism. For instance: We’re a small theater. We have only four shows a season. Your calendar looks nice, but it won’t do us any good.

I cringed, feeling silly for missing the obvious, but this was what I was really looking for — a flaw in my thinking. Design is not about avoiding failure, but rather failing at the right time. And we had found this flaw when making a change was no more trouble than updating a drawing. (Easy! Fast! Cheap!) It was way better to figure this out before it had been baked into the software.

When people hear the word “design,” they often think of making something look nice. That’s certainly part of it, but design is really about approaching a problem with intention. We’re nice people. We don’t mean to dump our bad ideas on other people, but this is what happens when we don’t design. Design is about giving ourselves the time we need. It’s about thinking about other people, how they feel, and what would make their lives better. Design is professional empathy.

As a designer, I’m often asked to come in at the end and polish up the product. The car has been built; it’s going to be shipped to the showroom next Tuesday; I’m just there to pick out the paint and make the fenders shiny. The car looks great, but nobody noticed that we forgot the steering wheel.

With our ticketing site project, we’re doing things differently. I’m not just putting on a little paint at the end. I’m making it easier for theaters, museums, and other types of arts organizations (large, medium, and small), to share what they have to offer. I’m helping arts lovers love the arts.

This is what design is really about — serving others by meeting actual human needs. In that sense, we’re all designers, or at least we could be. It all begins with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

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2 responses to “Design is Professional Empathy

  1. I’d love to see a calendar feature in PatronManager that would interact with our site. Is this an option soon or are you beta testing this function? Thanks!

    1. Hi Pamela, thanks for reading our blog! I have passed your comment along to our Client Administration team — someone will reach out to you directly in regards to your question.

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