Design Day: Empathy


This particular Design Day started a couple months back as I was reflecting upon how I might bring additional thoughtfulness into my team after a long production spell, and I came across this fascinating design field – that of an ocularist; a maker of prosthetic eyes. With interest, I found one of the two in the entire state of Utah and called his office. After a brief introduction, an explanation of Day of Design, and the desire to help my team connect with another discipline that focused on caring and making products for others, he gladly agreed to have my team on site for a tour of eye-making.

Our host was a thoughtful practitioner who has been making prosthetic eyes for the last 28 years. He showed us around his office, examples of his work, and the process of making prosthetic eyes for patients. There were a many lessons to be learned from him about what it means to solve a problem for another person by making something for them. It was both inspiring and grim. Painful and beautiful.


The most inspiring lessons were learned from our host’s own anecdotes, passion, and empathy it takes to be in his particular line of work. Below are just a few insights that my team and I learned from our time with him:

  • There is always a person on the other side of the your work: You can’t be in the business of making prosthetic eyes (software?) if you think it’s just plastic, acrylic, and paint. Likewise in software, you can’t provide meaningful solutions for customers if all you see is the code, buttons, and navigation. Albeit in making software it’s probably more easy to lose touch with who you are making software for because of the abstract nature of the medium… If an ocularist makes a prosthetic eye for a person that doesn’t quite fit, doesn’t quite match the other eye, or is uncomfortable – the outcome is a non-working solution. Thanks but no thanks – “You gave me an eye, but I can’t use it because it causes me discomfort when it’s placed.”
  • Solving real problems means getting your hands dirty: The glamorous part of making a prosthetic eye involves hand-painting an exact replica of the patient’s iris and mimicking other anatomical details with striking reality… but before the ocularist gets to paint and finish the prosthetic, there are some very uncomfortable steps that involve filling in the eye socket with alginate “putty” and creating an appropriate mold for acrylic casting. It’s uncomfortable but necessary. As software makers/designers are you only involved in quick, topical solutions? Or are you willing to see the gritty side of the problem your customers have, and with sensitivity – uncover the real problems?
  • Love what you do: Our host, a 28-year ocularist veteran, loved making prosthetic eyes. He had developed his own techniques, cost-cutting measures, and processes for making the squeamish process and end product more comfortable for his patients. His craft comes from passion. His passion leads to healing. Do you love design? Do you love helping people and solving problems – real problems? As a UX designer are you passionate about mastering your craft? Do you see design and problem solving as an out-of-the-box processes or are you sensitive enough to know when/how different methodologies should be used?
  • The most memorable part of the day was when our host shared his experiences around delivering and placing the finished prosthetic for his customers – it changed their lives. To understand the impact of finishing a prosthetic eye for a patient, you have to reflect upon what it’s like to have a damaged or missing eye, the role our eyes play in communicating, and the prominence our eyes play as a defining feature of individuals and humanity… to be missing an eye often means being filled with regret, fear, guilt and pain. And sometimes these emotions are felt by not just the individual missing an eye, but their parents or other family members too. After having been poked and prodded, measured and photographed – patients become a different person when their prosthetic eye is placed and given to them.

    The ocularist we visited recounted stories of parents crying, brothers and sisters texting their friends saying “Tommy has his new eye!”, and smiles spread across the faces of people that sit in his office. It was touching to hear his stories. I was most impressed that our host was in tune with the experience and response of his patients; noting how people smiled, sometimes for the first time since losing their eye.

    After this experience, I’ve been reflecting upon how software/experience designers can create meaningful solutions that make people smile and help them feel healed? How can my team and I uncover real problems that users have – not just the topical, easy-to-solve problems but real problems that need real solutions. It’s so easy to create an “eye patch” for customers when they really need a new eye. I think empathy is key. Insert quote passed on from my good friend Chad:

    “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”
    – Lilla Watson