User Experience is a Social Justice Issue

User Experience is a Social Justice Issue

by Sumana Harihareswara

Empathy and the User Experience

Monica Diego

Kristi Hansen

Dana Kim

Stephanie Miko

Grace Song

Sumana Harihareswara defines customer service as a basic human right; the author’s aim is to change practices to focus on the needs of the user. Sometimes, as the author points out, technology gets in the way of good customer service. One such example is the “19 Steps of Hell” described at the New York public library. A user must complete 19 steps to use an e-book. Consider a user who is not fluent in English or a disabled user, these extra steps create a barrier and barriers stop the flow of information. It can also be seen in the Keurig coffee system: the Keurig’s benefits and detriments are weighed by the users, and it works for some people, but not all. It is important to be able to step back and look at services from the viewpoint of the user, and take into account the diverse needs of the library. The author discusses empathy and the need for librarians to think in terms of human relationships instead of hard and fast rules.

Being hospitable is accepting feedback (the negative as well as the positive), and turning that feedback into usable data. It is important to “see from many different user’s points of view, even when it’s uncomfortable or shows us that we’ve failed” (Harihareswara, 2015, p. 4). Working together and learning to communicate effectively is a practical solution to better customer support. Libraries and technology go hand in hand, and according to Harihareswara empathy is listening and responding.

In a public library setting it is crucial to focus on the providing of services, and as Harihareswara states, the building of capillaries instead of arteries, or building personal relationships and leaving the technology building to those who can better control it. Leaving the arteries to others, and creating a better user experience using disciplined empathy, the public library can provide welcoming hospitality coupled with the cutting-edge technology users crave.

After the author, Sumana Harihareswara, stated many examples of proven issues in lack of usability in banking, e-books, and others, she concluded that there was a simple lack of empathy on the developer’s side of programming (Harihareswara, 2015). It is obvious that poor usability leads to lack of use, which causes a barrier in information access, which is a complete disregard for open access. Allowing obstacles like bad usability to plague the information world, ultimately narrows awareness.

The author concludes that simple actions of empathy for the users and keeping an open mind to possible improvements, can destroy unneeded barriers to information access. Creating a connection between developers and users through communication, allows developers to modify any needed programing to allow for better usability. This can be done by organizing a diverse group of control members who can trouble shoot issues during development phases (Harihareswara, 2015). The author also asks to omit any notions of dominant point of views. As a programmer and creating a product, it’s easy to assume a product is perfect because it is your creation in a professional environment, but will your audience and users understand the product in its entirety. Being empathetic to these users and open to feedback can greatly increase the usability and use of your product, which is in the end the entire purpose to a creation.

This issue can be labeled as “bad customer service.” A simple definition of customer service states it is “the act of taking care of a customer’s needs by providing and delivering professional, helpful, and high quality service and assistance before, during, and after the customer’s requirements are met.” Our author states that customers need to be treated “as a first class responsibility and a source of important data” (p. 3). Designing with a code of “disciplined empathy” will ensure all user needs are meet, the product is at its best, and all possible information is available for all to access and use.

The term “social justice” refers to making sure no one is left behind in issues of civil rights, opportunities, or just clearing out the judgments people make against each other that separate them in society. Social justice aims to erase barriers, so everyone in our society is able to enjoy the same high quality of life without prejudice. Harihareswara has stumbled on a hidden prejudice in our Internet society: one that is against the computer illiterate. People may joke that they’re “bad” at computers or that they need their kids show them how to use their smartphone. The more we step away from paper and face-to-face interaction, the bigger the divide between the tech savvy and the computer illiterate. This is something people may be embarrassed about and try to mask it with jokes, but it is no laughing matter.

When Harihareswara mentions the “19 Steps of Hell” to borrow an e-book from the library, that is something relatively inconsequential in an individual’s life. But as we saw last year with the roll out of Obamacare, bad user design and interface, combined with people who may be elderly, disabled, or lack proper Internet access, creates a cascading operational failure.

Customer service and the IT department will gripe about the problem being “between the keyboard and the chair”, meaning it is not the system’s error but the user’s. But many of these same designers refuse to view their creation as difficult for the layperson to use. Many times programmers are focusing on speed, precision, and economy of language. What one programmer may see as needless words – an inelegant dumbing down of the expedient user system being designed – may be necessary explanations for those who are less confident in their computing skills. Isn’t it possible that while we librarians work to help the public with their computer skills, we should also be teaching our programmers and designers to be creative, compassionate, and just?

In conclusion, this article addresses much more than the issue of improving customer service. Most public service domains, companies and businesses know that customer service should always be great and impressive for its customers. Harihareswara explores the questions of how and why. The purpose of this article is to lead to more meaningful conversations on how to incorporate diversity in the workplace and how doing so will lead to better products and services. Simply put, the more diverse identities a library has in its staff, the more comfortable patrons will feel using the services. For example, if the designers of library software, websites and/or services are made from the point of view of people who may not have as much education or may not be completely fluent in English, then perhaps more people (especially those who are marginalized) will be able to use it without getting frustrated or feeling inadequate. The author’s discussion of hospitality and disciplined empathy are core to her argument that with more effective communication and through more listening and observing, services will be more all-inclusive. The aspect of including more people, especially those who are of minority groups or do not have as much opportunity in work or in the general society, will be helpful in the long run with lasting positive changes. It does not start with the product or service itself, it starts with the willingness to understand different people.


Harihareswara, H. (2015). User Experience is a Social Justice Issue. Code{4}lib Journal, 1-5.

One thought on “User Experience is a Social Justice Issue”

  1. By: Jasminn Avila, Kim Ellis, Erik Jones, Claudine Taillac

    The topic of this blog posting and Harihareswara’s article highlight key issues that are rising the more technology is ingrained into information seeking and retrieval. It made very clear that empathy and hospitality is not present in every individual, and as the article points out, is often lacking in the tech industry which can lead to a negative user experience. To find more individuals with those traits, diversity should be sought frequently. However, diversity within the tech field that directly impacts libraries is something that sounds like it can be an easy fix, but it goes much deeper than that.

    Diversifying the staff (to include more people with those traits already) would provide a minimal fix, so we need to look at the root of the issue. Those already working in the tech industry should do as Harihareswara suggests, and use “disciplined empathy” when coding and creating user programs. Because of the technical nature of the work, typically it doesn’t promote or require constant social interaction, and therefore there are not many chances to improve one’s empathy or hospitality on the job.

    While we’re addressing a very particular issue within a particular field, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that all human beings learn to be more empathetic and hospitable to each other in the bigger picture, which would allow channels of discussion and learning to flow freely.

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