Empathy Building: Mental Health Cafe

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A thing I created while swapping feelings & stories on my first day. Guess what it is 😀

“These are the final 12” She said to me pointing at her phone. I was eating lunch and I couldn’t even imagine what she meant. “Final 12 of?” I continued “Xfactor!”, she exclaimed, “final 12 on Xfactor” Oh, I went, it was only my first day at the mental health cafe. She went on to describe the contestants in detail while I asked for pictures. In the cafe, she was just another person with a particular way of communicating and the added skill of describing things in great detail, straight from memory, in the outside world she would be labelled as “handicapped”

This year has been the toughest year of my life and with suffering, it’s easy for us to disappear into ourselves. Imagine how many other people are going through the same or much worse, we end up with a society where hearts are blocked off from each other.

When I got back to London, after many days of rolling in the dark, I resolved that one of the best ways to get myself out of darkness was to reach out to others. Luckily at the same time I had been introduced to a project by a man whom I’d met and helped earlier in the year.

This project is helping people cope with some mental health challenges. While I was researching around how to connect with more people with these difficulties, I met another man who introduced me to the Dragon Cafe, a pop up mental health cafe, that opens up every Monday in Borough. I was so happy.

“The whole point, is to be a complete antithesis to your average mental health service. People like it, because there’s no pressure to do anything at all. They can sing, if they want to. They can write. They can paint. But they can also just collapse on a bean bag and snore”.

The first day was amazing. Over the course of my volunteering I came to see how many were regulars, why they come to the cafe, how it relaxes them and the friends they make. Every single person in the cafe both volunteers and guests have/had mental health challenges so it makes it easier to talk to people. I work at the art table and I get to see how much being able to ‘play’ makes people happy, free and connected.

As a UX practitioner, it was a no brainer to be amongst those I would be designing for, even though I face mental health challenges myself. As a human, I knew it made sense to be able to connect with others, to come out of oneself. For me, going there helps to build my empathy for others, to understand other perspectives like the lady I had an interesting conversation with about Xfactor,  not to be too hard on myself, to accept orders from others, to co operate with people (we pack up the cafe at night)

A wonderful announcement was made yesterday, some people from PWC will be creating a similar pop up in the City. The cafe makes so much sense and my hope is many more such cafes are created, if you aren’t too busy why not pay a visit or donate to the cause.

Cheerios xo

How to increase empathy for users

In User Experience we are fond of talking about empathy, but what does it really mean?

“Empathy is an important aspect of user-centered design (UCD) as it allows people being seen and understood from where they stand, not as test subjects but as persons with feelings” 

Vanhuysse, S & Hall, L. (2004) 

No one asks you to have empathy for your son or lover, we seem to do it anyway. Empathy doesn’t just come out of no where, it is founded on love and requires action, here are some that may help you increase your empathy.

Participate in User research as a User

While I was in University I took part in User research as a user (still do). The most memorable one was a Diary Study for a Scottish University. I had to sign into my specially created online diary and log my sleep habits daily. This ran for a couple of weeks, the incentive was ÂŁ50 and a copy of the research findings. After the initial week, I got weary and bored. There wasn’t any update from the researchers (until the end ) and I frequently felt neglected, but still got to complete it because I like to finish what someone asks me to do.

As I began to conduct the interviews, research and studies on the job this experience became very useful. Knowing how I felt when I was a user helped me take better care with the people I meet for research, making sure they are comfortable if running an interview or usability study. I have made mistakes, made someone cry once but hopefully never again.

“We must remember that people live beyond our research and approach them with that in mind” 

Antonia A.

With this experience you’d know what it’s like to be interviewed, recorded, prodded, you know where it hurts and where it makes you sing. This is standing in the user’s shoes.

Put up Personas on your wall

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I’ve seen a number of articles which question the need for personas. I have questioned it myself because no one seemed to really ever use it, except as a deliverable. But it struck me one day how necessary it was to have them, empathy. I’m writing this as a reminder to myself as well because I don’t do enough of it.

We invest time in our relationships, we do things daily that affirm to the people we love that we love them, why do we think it will be any different to the one’s we design for?. What if you never had a note, a picture, the reality, of the person you are starting a relationship with, what kind of relationship will that be?

Personas help us connect to those we are designing for. Personas tell us the user’s story and stories engender empathy. Personas should be present when we have our daily or weekly catch up project meetings because like we do in Nigerian weddings sometimes, if the persons getting married cannot be present, they will be there in picture and spirit because the party must go on.

“Absence blots people out. We really have no absent friends ” 

Ambrose Bierce

Some Useful Links on Personas

The Use of Comic Strips to Encourage Empathy in Design

Five approaches to creating lightweight personas

Persona Empathy Mapping

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I’m keen to know what actions you take to help increase and strengthen empathy.
Stay Bright.

Connected Brains: The Internet of Thoughts

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Recap

After writing about wearable technology for introverted intuitives, a lot of interesting discussions came out of that, so in a way this is a part two of that post. The initial idea stems from the experiences and the challenges of the INFJ. This is what it feels like for INFJs I discussed with.

“It happens so many times having valuable insights in my thoughts, and as they usually appear in the middle of a daily task, I don’t always have the time or mood to take notes, and because of this, in the moment I finally write down on paper, those insights will not be the same anymore, it happens the same when verbally communicating those insights to other people”


“I have often thought there should be a device that can capture my thoughts in real time, so I don’t have to write down the jumble of thoughts that go around in my head. I often have creative ideas I would like to store, but when I try to write them down even a few minutes after I have thought them, I cannot seem to recreate the exact same thought. The ‘magic’ is gone”

So that’s what it is about, Braintext will capture thoughts in real time and send them to your designated device, converting it to readable modifiable text.


This is a good post to read when thinking of wearables

Wearable Technology Design Principles


Going further, the discussions morphed into actually connecting brains to each other, of course there is the danger of brain hacking but I’ll focus on the benefits of this.

Connect Our Brains, really?

When I told a friend about this (He is ISTJ) he said that the internet as we know it could be seen as an internet of thoughts, because it is the products of our brains and thoughts that are connected. Fair enough I thought, with a smile, if I didn’t know personality types I may have gone into an argument with him. It is a valid thought, however IOT is specific to situations where the thoughts are connected ‘raw’. Thoughts will connect with thoughts directly.

What I imagine is being able to limit your thought transmission to certain people i.e the device you have (Braintext 2.o) will have to pair with mine, like how Bluetooth technology works. Will it still be hackable? as with all technology there is that possibility, but the mind is more powerful than we give it credit for. I think this might enhance our natural ways of communicating.

Possible Applications: Ability Bridge and Empathy Transfer

This is one of the thoughts that came from the original idea.

“When I initially saw the two persons facing each other wearing the devices, I imagined that the device could be both emitter and receiver, it would be like mind reading, which could be so useful for example in a situation where a person is unable to talk, imagine the benefits for disabled people. Second idea is related with empathy and mirror neurons, imagine if your device could “capture” or “process” somehow the information from those neurons and transmit them to someone who lacks them, for example, autistics.”

The Future

I do think the brain is the final frontier, once we get to understand the workings of it, this world will be something else entirely. For now, as my friend said, “IOT is a nice slogan, I’m waiting for a product that deserves it” We will wait with hope.

Empathy Needs Stories

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“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

 In April more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school in the North East of Nigeria. When the media began to carry the news I knew something was wrong. They kept talking about the numbers and even though I am Nigerian, I could not relate. The reports were so sketchy I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. It bothered me for a while and suddenly I was able to put my thoughts together one Saturday in April. I sent messages to my friends one of who’s father grew up in Chibok and hails from Borno state. “Thinking about the kidnapped girls, the story feels unreal, there’s no human face, we don’t have pictures, names, of the girls, of parents, family”.  We then took to twitter and joined the #BringBackOurGirls campaign

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Psychologists Deborah Small and George Loewenstein have shown that our empathy wilts in the face of statistical reasoning. Their research suggests that people can empathize deeply with identified individuals, but wanes when confronted with statistics of mass suffering.

 “In one study, people were more likely to give to charity when told the personal story of a single hungry girl than when confronted with statistics of millions like her. The hungry girl’s story by itself even induced more generosity than when it was combined with those statistics.”

This is important in fields like User Experience, because what makes the difference is empathy. Stories are told using many forms; Personas, Comics, User Journeys, all these things engender empathy and must not be dismissed instead we should seek to do better with these tools. We need to relate with and remember the people whose stories we tell, they aren’t just mere users but actual living and breathing people.

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Related Paper

Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims,” Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, Paul Slovic; Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, March 2007.

Empathy: Thoughts That Count.

First impressions matter, most people say and many have come to accept it. Why should it? really?. It’s been tried and tested out that our ‘impressions’ are always filled with known and unknown bias. It is like someone who goes to search for an image of a banana on the internet. The search engine turns up all sorts, obscene, rude, vulgar images from the internet database you may have to see, before you come across the actual image you want. Our brain is like that, a database of information collected from any and everywhere knowingly and unknowingly. So when you meet someone or see something, most of the image associated with that thing that you have encountered, your brain throws up and then you begin to make your jugement. Does this really portray who you are or what the thing is, no. This tells me that there is a need for some kind of control. This is why filters exist on the internet search, so you can hone in quickly on what you are searching for. We need to have filters.

 I just finished reading Blink! by Malcom Gladwell and he really did drive home the point. There are only two situations where first impressions matter. One, where the ‘second’ impression validates the first and two, where one has learnt to control the first impression. Basically, our snap judgements/decisions must be controlled and well-informed. This would only come through filters that help us focus on the important things which in turn, form our decisions. The book shows that these filter are built up by experience, it will come easy for some people and not so easy for others. It may not be easy to explain, but one has to have an awareness of this.

As a UX person and citizen of the world, the need to build and use these filters  is necessary. I always have to interact with people both directly and indirectly, if this is an inevitable part of life, I think it makes sense to spend a good deal of time in understanding these people one has to interact with. Also, the more one understands something, the less likely one is, to abuse it. The more one understands the people they are designing for, the less likely to abuse the privilege e.g by designing an unusable for product. I have to make snap decisions lots of times, while designing e.g going for a particular feature over another. I now know that my ‘gut feeling’ is being informed by something I have encountered or experienced in the past. To harness this ‘gut feeling’ I definitely have to do a lot filtering to make sure, that my gut feeling is well informed and objective in the situation.

While I continue on this journey,( because practice makes perfect) I realize that Empathy is one key filter. Empathy helps you to focus when you encounter a human being. On the most basic level, you know this person is just like you. I think this is a quality that UXers cannot afford to skimp on. We’d be lying if we say that our first impressions don’t matter. First impressions are formed by our experiences and environment, this means we can indeed control/change them. We have a choice. We can choose the experiences, we want to be a part of or how we process these experiences if inevitable. This article, “Using Empathic Listening to Collaborate” by Stephen Covey adds salient points. Empathy will go a long way in helping us build on the thoughts that count making us better designers and better human beings.