When I first came to the States, I carried with me a lot of stereotypical expectations nourished by the American media that I was exposed to before I arrived. One of them was about medicine. And of course, no show gave a better stereotype about it than E.R. My first month in America proved the medicine stereotype to be completely bogus. When I broke my toe by accidentally hitting the bed frame in the middle of the night, I did what I’d always done when I broke my finger playing basketball: I taped it to its neighbor. But then I thought that I might as well explore the marvels of American medicine and visit a clinic. The conversation went something like this:
Doctor: “I think you might have broken your toe.”
Me: “I guess so.”
The doctor moved my toe in various degrees of freedom.
Doctor: “We will probably need to get an X-Ray.”
Me: “What for?”
Doctor: “To see if it’s broken.”
Me: “What do we need to do if it’s broken?”
Doctor: “We’ll have to continue taping it together with the other toe.”
Me: “And what if it’s not broken.”
Doctor: “We’ll probably keep it taped together.”
I held myself from laughing: “I think I will skip the X-Ray.”
Doctor continued: “Okay. Does it hurt?”
Me: “Only when I walk for a while. But I can tolerate the pain and get some rest.”
Doctor: “I will prescribe some pain killers for you, in case the pain gets worse.”
I thought, “There is nothing wrong with that. The doctor is probably just doing her job.”
The reason I was reminded of that experience was that my dog was pretty sick yesterday and I had to take her to the vet. The doctor looked at my dog, asked me a few questions about what she’d been having and doing, then proceeded, without even having touched her, to list the lab tests, X-Rays, and injections that she needed to get. Then, without asking for my consent, the vet gave my dog a shot to stop her from vomiting. The rest of the day was a nightmare for me, my dog, and my wallet. But on my way home I thought, “The doctor was probably just doing his job.”
Then it hit me that this was THE fundamental problem. The doctor was just doing a job. For him, my dog and I were just part of the job. He didn’t ask me about who she was, what her lifestyle was like, and how I would like her to be treated. He proceeded with her as part of his job. For him, she was just another dog, and I was just another owner.
The reason I have mentioned E.R. at the beginning of this note is that the show has opened my eyes to something that I rarely pay attention to: E.R. doctors, nurses and hospital staff have their own lives too. They are human. They are not just the labels and functions that they carry. I had a similar experience as a child when I saw my third grade teacher in the supermarket buying food. Before then, she was a “teacher.” After that, I started thinking of her as human, beyond the label that was assumed during our daily roles and interactions.
Every day, I deal with at least a dozen people assuming various roles: the cashier at the mall, the parking valet, the clients, the vendors, the bloggers, the service providers, the telemarketer. And for each of them, I remember that there is a role that our conversation or interaction assumes, but there is fundamentally also a human being behind that role — one with a life, dreams, challenges, happiness and sorrow. And in every conversation, especially one with my clients, I don’t just assume the role that’s expected of me during that conversation. I always remind myself of the human behind that transaction – of their dreams, their challenges and most important, their humanity. And whether I am providing a service or being provided one, I like to know that I somehow have made a positive mark on that person’s life, that I haven’t just fulfill the expected part of the business, and that I’ve bridged a gap, reaching across to communicate and work on the human level.
As a designer, I am reminded that design is all about creating human solutions. Design is not applying one’s style to a problem. Design is empathy. It’s finding the most humanized solution for the problem. It’s being able to recognize that person who’s being cast as an “end user” of the product and to understand her challenges and her expectations. Great design goes even beyond that. It cares about the user’s dreams, not just her expectations. It empowers her to believe she is much better than she has thought, and she can do much more than she has done. And in so believing and doing, she can feel human again.