I live a double life, moving regularly back and forth between a home in Cleveland, Ohio and one in Detroit, Michigan, and living in two cities has given me — forgive my arrogance — a tiny bit more perspective on human existence than I think most people have. Both of my homes are once-great cities that are fighting hard to rise back to greatness, and each one can produce both crushing hopelessness and uplifting moments depending on where you look.
Long Story Long
Someone out there is asking ‘what does this have to do with web design, Jared?’ I’ll get there — bear with me. I was walking down the street in Cleveland a few days ago, and I came across one of many people begging on the street. This guy was different — rather than the classic haggard look and beat-up cardboard sign, he looked clean, moderately well-dressed (a T-shirt, an obviously shaven beard, and some clean shorts), and a sign written on a plank of wood. The sign read “Spaceship broken. Need parts for trip home.”
Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t have any cash on me, but I stopped and laughed with him and asked him about his story — more specifically, why he chose such an unorthodox appearance. Didn’t the haggard look evoke more sympathy? “Sympathy is overrated,” he told me, “I prefer empathy.”
I asked him what he meant, and it started the longest (and most interesting) conversation I’ve ever had with a beggar. He told me, in short, that it’s easier to identify with people that look like you — and when people identify with you, they imagine themselves in your shoes. They can’t help it. And when they do that, they can imagine your pain much more ably than they can if they simply see someone that they feel only pity for.
Here’s What It Has to Do With Web Design
Now, I don’t want to encourage anyone to go out begging, but the lesson here is profound, even for web designers — if you can get people to identify with you, you can get them to feel, and when you evoke emotions, you encourage action.
Here’s an example from a friend of mine in Washington State from a few years back. Faced with stifling competition from major insurance companies, one local company started an advertising campaign both on TV and online that featured some unique quirk that Northwesterners have that doesn’t appear in many other places in the US. One of them was “socks and sandals guy”. Another was the “type-A yoga girl”, and the “goosebumped beach bum”. Each one of them was quite clearly designed from the ground up to make people laugh and say either “hey, that’s me!” or “I know that person!”
The product (PEMCO insurance), in the end, was actually less relevant than the connection and the empathy that the ads generated — and that’s the point. As web designers, we have an opportunity to create the face of a company, and while we generally don’t offer advertising services as part of what we do, we still have the ability to make that face as easy to identify with (and hopefully as like-able) as possible. Ask yourself how you can arrange the design elements of your next page to make your clients’ clients see themselves in the product or service being offered, and see if you can’t get the power of human empathy working for you.