Q&A: Seung Chan Lim on improving human centered design

What does empathy have to do with innovation and technology? According to Rhode Island based designer Seung Chan Lim, plenty and not enough.

A  bona fide graduate of RISD's STEM to STEAM movement, Seung Chan Lim landed in the design world after a successful career in computer science and engineering. His current work studies how to push design beyond usability. In the following exchange, he discusses what empathy has to do with innovation and technology.

SmartPlanet: What is your design research about?

Seung Chan Lim: It is about understanding how "making" as a process works, what it means to make something, and why it matters to our lives.

I see this research as a way to facilitate a meaningful and sustainable dialogue between and among cultures and disciplines, by using "making" as the shared metaphor.

SP: How and where would you like to see your research being applied?

SCL: My primary interest is in applying the research to the domain of computer hardware and software design. But I believe the research can be applied to any domain that wishes to facilitate a dialogue between different perspectives. It can be between a human being and a computer, or a human being and another human being. Right now in most places that call themselves "interdisciplinary", what you have is artists visualizing what the scientists have already done, or scientists analyzing what artist have already done. I think we can do a lot more interesting work than that.

SP: How did you get interested in computers and design?

SCL: I always loved video games so when I was told to pick a college major, music -- which was my passion in high school -- seemed too risky. I chose Computer Science (CS) thinking that it was about video games. Boy was I wrong about CS being about video games! As for design, when I graduated, I worked for a company called MAYA Design and it wasn't until I worked there that I got interested in design. Up until then I thought design was about making pretty cups or something. I actually looked down on it.

SP: Now what is your opinion of design?

SCL: I think design is a conscious and systematic attempt to affect the future in a way that you perceive is "better" than how it is now.

SP: Your research refers to the emotions, often frustrations, that people can feel towards their computers.

SCL: Yes. There's a lot of it in the world, don't you think?

You know how we used to have programmable VCRs? How many people could actually program the damn thing? The blinking 12:00:00 on the face of the VCR became kind of a cultural icon. We've essentially replaced that with computers. It's far worse, because so many more people have to do so many more things with the computer than a VCR. And most of us don't even have a choice. We have to use the computer, because our work demands it. This puts a lot of pressure on the designers working on computers and software.

In the beginning people thought this was primarily a problem of usability. If we can design the computer so that it's more "usable" or "easy-to-use", that'd be the end of it. But this puts the focus on how easy something is. Much of modern life has trained us to focus too much on getting stuff done, to put aside the process, and to march on. If we do too much of this we lose meaning. I think this is a waste of people's time and energy. We have to rethink the focus for computer hardware and software design. Ease-of-use isn't the goal.

SP: What do you see as the goal of computer hardware and software design?

SCL: At the end of the day I believe it's to do with dignity. So the computer, if anything, is an instrument like a microscope, a lens, or something that augments our physical capabilities that allows us to learn more about who we are, who others are, and how we are related to each other. It is to increase our capacity to empathize.

SP: Are you currently working on a practical application of your ideas?

SCL: I'm working on a long-term project with a client to apply the model to the context of a business organization. How can you facilitate an empathic conversation between and among employees in an organization? How can you minimize misunderstandings, and help people work effectively and efficiently without resorting to the traditional understanding of efficiency adopted from car manufacturers? It's very early in the game, so I'm quite excited to see how it pans out in the next couple years.

SP: The corporate environment seems like the perfect place for more empathy.

SCL: Yes! I think so, too. When you get down to it, you realize that corporations are filled with really smart and capable people but the organizational structure doesn't allow them to utilize their talents in ways that is conducive to doing great work.

I'm also trying to raise funds for the next phase, which is to prototype a new kind of human-computer interaction paradigm for making software. I'm underwhelmed by the two predominant paradigms, textual programming and visual programming. I'd like to imbue the principles of empathic conversation into this domain. I have a kickstarter project to self-publish a book I wrote as part of the research.

SP: So is your hope to develop a better language, whether in programming or how we talk to each other in a work environment?

SCL: Yes, that's a huge part of it and "language" is a loaded word. We think of language as the alphabet, the grammar, the syntax, etc...but no, the language is a lot bigger than that. It has to do with culture, with how we engage each other and with silent dialogues like non-verbal communication.

What I would like to do is share what I have learned with as many people as possible then I will apply the idea to more and more tangible products and the result will speak for itself. If it doesn't work, then I'll keep on revising it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com