Designing for apathy.
Most people are apathetic about at least some things.
I currently work in a phone shop and I see this all the time. I’ll ask people what phone they’d like and most people either don’t care or maybe only have a brand they’d like. At first this struck me as quite strange. How could they not care about this item that was going to be with them pretty much every day for the next 2 years at least!? Then I tried to empathise more with them. They just wanted a tool that communicated with their friends and family, went on social media and took a half decent photo. After all that’s what most people use their phones for.
This is often designed for in the technology industry. The reason so much focus is placed on megapixels of a camera rather than lens quality or anything else is because its very easy to understand that 20megapixels is better than 12megapixels. It tells you very little about how the camera will actually take a picture but the user/customer can remain apathetic to it and understand which is best. The marketing teams and designers used empathy to not only understand how the user feels but also to understand that the user would feel so drastically different than someone who works within the technology industry.
Tim Brown of IDEO said that ‘Empathy is at the heart of design’ and I definitely think that’s true. (Check out his blog post here https://designthinking.ideo.com/?p=1008) Especially when we are talking about user experience design. Taking the customers apathy into consideration allowed me to have much better conversations and sales with customers.
However, it seems the same empathy of understanding the users apathy often isn’t used when it comes to designing social change. An example I want to use is reducing plastic waste and use. We see videos and posts explaining why we should recycle or use less plastic and these are all designed with the theory that the user doesn’t know that their behaviour is damaging to the environment. Now often this is true. A great example is that episode of Blue Planet 2 where David Attenborough explain exactly how plastic was affecting our oceans. And that has had a massive impact. However all of these types of informative posts fail to empathise with one key thing. The person might just not care.
This concept seems strange to people. That there would be someone who doesn’t care that plastics are getting into the food chain, but often its true. People aren’t willing to change their behaviour that much even if they know it’s the right thing to do. These types of post and campaigns need to be designed with the users apathy in mind.
A perfect example of this is plastic straws. In the UK at least there has been a revolution in straws. There have been campaigns and videos not only explaining how bad plastic straws are but also giving alternatives. It got so big that major companies like Wetherspoons stopped plastic and now give out biodegradable or paper straws. The reason for this is because it exploits the grey area of not caring that most people have.
Most people don’t care about the straw they have in their drink. SO if you offer an alternative that has such little impact on their behaviour that they don’t really notice and it makes them feel like they’re doing a good thing then you have a winning campaign.
I should say there has been some controversy over exactly how much impact plastic straws and changing them impacts the world. But I think it’s at least a start. The important thing to remember is that changing behaviour is a process and not an event. Small changes can build up to a big one. Hopefully this is one small change that shapes a bigger social change in the future. Almost training us to have eco-friendly behaviour as normal routine and slowly get out of the habit of apathy about this major issue.