Five Essential Qualities of Kindness and how to Design for them

Kindness is empathetic, inclusive, beautiful, sees suffering, and reflects kindly. But more importantly: it is powerful. Here are some thoughts about kindness in Product Design and how we might build kinder products.

Essential parts of Kindness in Product Design

I was an anxious child. It didn’t help that by the time I went to Grade 3, I was in my third primary school. My parents moved around a lot. They both worked full-time, which was unusual for the neighbourhoods we lived in. As was being in after-care. I was not as well-groomed as the other kids in my class, and I knew it.

But I had this 2nd-grade teacher. One day she walked past me after school and asked how I was doing. I didn’t know how to respond to a grown-up who seemed to just want to talk to me, and blurted out: “3rd grade is so much harder than 2nd grade! I can’t keep up!”. She didn’t smile or laugh. She just looked at me, very seriously, and said: “Yes, you can. You can.”

It was a moment of kindness. It was a little strange. Quite frankly, she was a little strange. But I’ll never forget it.

Werner Reich was a holocaust survivor & magician and said this:

“If you ever know somebody who needs help, if you know somebody who is scared, be kind to them. If you do it at the right time, it will enter their heart, and it will be with them wherever they go, forever.”

“It will be with them wherever they go, forever.” Sounds like a pretty low-energy, high-yield exercise to me.

I think we all have these kinds of stories. Stories where we’re feeling low, somehow, and then someone reaches out unexpectedly, without standing to gain anything, and gives us words of encouragement. Or a gift. Or a smile. Or teaches us a card trick. Or a song.

Kindness is powerful. It sees all of us but it focuses on the best in us. Kindness directs our attention to what we already are. It’s encouraging and uplifting. It makes us better human beings. Kindness recognises pain and wants to make it better.

Kindness is mysterious and illogical and beautiful.

I’ve been designing products — websites, platforms, desktop and mobile apps, dashboards and solutions — for the last 20 years. I’ve always felt a simmering dissatisfaction with my work. For a long time I put it down to the usual Product/UX Designer frustration: delivering things with a diverse team, tight deadlines, and every kind of constraint is challenging. It’s especially hard if you’re a bit of a perfectionist — as most designers are. We know it’s challenging. It’s why we’re so attracted to the work. Product Design is never boring.

But I realised that there is something else that’s bugging me: I want the things that I design to be kind. It’s something I’ve always pushed for, but it only revealed itself to me in the last few years. I looked at all of the frameworks I had been given as a Product Designer and I felt frustrated. Some of them come close to prioritising kindness — Human-Centred Design, Values-Centric Design, and Value Sensitive Design. But many of the popular frameworks seem to be all about business-centered values.

Why kindness? Why not design for love or compassion? The reason is this: I think love does not concern itself with boundaries or fairness. Design will always have boundaries. And when I think of compassion, I imagine physical, practical help being given to someone in pain, and I’m not sure I can achieve that with the kinds of products I design.

Kindness, on the other hand, is attainable.

The Dalai Lama says:

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

We can and must design tech to be encouraging, empathetic, inclusive, and optimistic about human nature, and to foster deeper and more authentic connections between people and nature. Without kindness, we are lost. We build addictive products that grow exponentially and disrupt industries, but often damage people.

I’ve studied kindness and it’s not a simple thing to define. I realised that there isn’t really even a word for it in my first language (Afrikaans). It’s big and amorphous, but when it comes to Product Design, we can simplify it a little bit.

Here is what I believe are five essential qualities of kindness:

Kindness is empatheticKindness is inclusiveKindness sees sufferingKindness reflects kindlyKindness is beautiful

Kindness is empathetic

Without empathy, without deeply understanding the people we are designing products for, what their lives are like, what their stress levels are, how healthy they are, how chaotic their environments might be, and what their capabilities and vulnerabilities are, we cannot deliver kind products. Without empathy, the help we provide is probably not empowering and it might not even be helpful at all. It is often charitable, but I believe that charity that doesn’t actively seek to empower people, often leaves them disempowered.

I recognized very early on in my career that spending time with your users, watching them use your products, and listening to them with as open a mind as possible, is the most valuable thing you can do as a designer. If you’re lucky enough to be in an environment where this is recognised and your team pays attention to primary user research, be grateful! You’re probably not working in a startup. 🙂

Without empathy, we often build products for ourselves. We convince ourselves that it’s for an end-user, but without knowing that person, we’re very quick to build a pseudo-persona of what that person is like, who is kinda like us, but just a little bit different.

How to empathise?

Meet your end-users (in real life, ideally), observe them, and listen. We need to meet the people we are designing and building products for. Ideally, we need to observe them in their normal, everyday environment (if this is the environment we imagine them in while using our designs, of course!). We need to listen to them without steering the conversation and hear what it is that they need (not what they want!). And we need to get as close as possible to understanding why they have this need. Yes. I believe that contextual, qualitative research is still the ultimate tool for building empathy.Share your findings with your team (or get them to join in a bit of research). We need to share our findings with the bigger product team in such a way that they also feel what our end-users are feeling, and get an understanding of how they think. And remember, empathy is both about the affective (feeling what others are feeling) and the cognitive (knowing how others are thinking).Observe people using your product, and ask “why?” a lot. There is nothing quite as powerful for building empathy as a user test where you watch people struggling with your product in ways that you had never imagined. Or using your product in ways you didn’t foresee. And yet — this is what you will experience whenever you do user testing the right way. And when it happens — when people do those unpredictable things with your product — remember to ask them “why?” Without understanding why people do things, we assume we know, and assumptions can be risky.

Kindness is inclusive

I come from South Africa. We’re famous for Nelson Mandela, beautiful beaches, incredible wildlife, and natural diversity. Our country is also known for the system of Apartheid. I grew up in a segregated society (officially until I was 10, but unofficially until much later). The damage that that kind of exclusion does — both to the excluder and the excluded — is profound. It will not be healed during my lifetime or that of my children or grandchildren. Apartheid was an extreme kind of exclusion, admittedly.

The kind of exclusion we often build into our designs is much more subtle and often unintentional. Of course, inclusion is not only the absence of exclusion. It’s the opposite of exclusion.

“When we design for inclusion, we are designing for our future selves and our ever-changing abilities. It’s designing how the next generation will treat and care for us. It’s making solutions to uphold the human connections that are most important in our lives. Our dignity, health, safety, and sense of being at home.”~ Kat Holmes, Author of “Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design”

My idea of inclusive design is something like this: products should be designed in such a way that they don’t exclude people based on their physical abilities, race, culture, religion, gender, education, nationality, age, or physical environment. It’s about proactively looking for points of exclusion and addressing them. It’s an ideal to work towards rather than an end goal. It’s something I strive for in my work and that I am hard on myself about, especially when it comes to the simpler guidelines around accessibility, and the use of language.

We have all the tools at our disposal to easily determine sufficient contrast and text sizes for different devices, yet we keep building products with low-contrast, tiny text that can’t be resized. You will truly feel the frustration caused when you begin working with people older than 40. And when you hit 40, you’ll realise that everyone (including yourself!) is temporarily able-bodied. We need to get over ourselves and build products that resize text gracefully.

We also keep on using bewildering jargon in our designs (not only technical jargon but often the jargon of wherever our subject matter expertise lies). At best, we lose engagement, but at worst: we make people feel anxious, frustrated, confused, or spoken down to.

I spoke about this to my husband — the poor man has to listen to many of my ramblings about these things. He thought about it and said: “But what about all the things that are exclusive by nature? Luxury cars and yachts and things?” We will always have luxury brands and experiences with us, I suppose, but I don’t consider exclusive luxury products kind, or concerned with creating a kinder world. I’m not really concerned with them. My attempt to put together a new framework for designing products is not universally applicable — only to products and services that are concerned with kindness.

Fortunately, amazing progress has been made in the last few years towards designing and building products that are more inclusive, but I still think that we need to take care that we don’t view inclusive design as a luxury add-on to our designs — something we’ll give attention to once we start getting traction and investment.

How to build inclusive products?

There is an ocean of resources that have been created over the last few years about inclusive design and how to do it. I’m going to shamelessly draw from because I feel that the site has eloquently put down the 3 most important things we need to pay attention to if we’re really serious about inclusivity:

Build diverse Product teams, because diverse teams bring diverse experiences and ideas together and you will end up with more inclusive designs. Or at least, your team will have more lively debates about design decisions and consider inclusive practices more often.Design for disabilities first. Gosh. I am yet to find a team that does this, but it’s certainly something to aim for. We’re often under so much pressure to get some kind of workable, non-buggy MVP out into the world, that designing for disabilities is the last thing on our minds. The great news is that there are tons of platforms and methods that are freely available to us to make this easier, should the team consider it.Give people control. Allow people to experience your Product with higher contrast settings, bigger text sizes, or screen readers. Don’t disable these options. Disabling them sends a very unkind message. At best it says: “We don’t care about you.” At worst it says: “You don’t exist.” As I write this, I’m helping out a startup Product Team who has already released a product that does exactly this. They are a kind bunch of people and yes, under a lot of pressure to release features. I empathise. It seems to me that inclusive design is something that often has to be built into the DNA of a product from the beginning, or it will never be achieved. But I also believe that it’s better for a Product from a business perspective (yes, profitability) in the long run. It’s just a little more expensive to work it in later.“Inclusive design is a win-win for customers and businesses. It expands your product’s reach, sparks innovation, and helps your company take on a position of social responsibility.”~Lillian Xiao, 6 Principles for Inclusive Design

Kindness sees suffering

Kindness sees suffering and wants to alleviate it. Kindness cares. It wants to make people feel better. It’s encouraging and empowering. It is polite and considerate at the least.

It doesn’t aim to give people who are suffering a fleeting moment of relief, after which they return to a state of suffering. Kindness wants to see people build their health, wealth, and happiness.

We know that tech is committing untold harm to humanity. Only, the harms aren’t really untold anymore. Peer-reviewed research shows us that in many cases, badly designed tech:

Causes developmental delays in our children, especially in terms of language and literacyMakes our young people depressed, anxious, and suicidalMakes us angry and divides usDamages our ability to think, focus, solve problems, and be present with our loved onesMakes us feel stressed and lonelyIs often addictive, with levels of addiction correlated with a reduction in gray matter in the amygdala, similar to the type of cell death seen in cocaine addicts

If we care about people and about the alleviation of suffering, we need to recognise that this is true and stop building tech that causes suffering in the first place.

We also need to be more mindful and intentional with our designs.

Consider the intentions of your products and services — are they trying to alleviate suffering? Be careful not to confuse greater efficiency and speed with the alleviation of suffering. Just because I can apply for a product more easily and quickly, or buy something with fewer clicks, or complete a form without thinking about it (because I’ve been given convenient default responses), I am not necessarily on the receiving end of kindness.Recognise suffering (where possible) and respond appropriately, at the very least. Depending on the kind of product you are designing, your users may have more transparent or more opaque, and more severe or more trivial forms of pain that they’re dealing with. But I’ve seen work done at many enterprise-sized businesses where products for funeral insurance and disability cover are treated like children’s savings accounts. A Product Design machine with templates and guidelines is put into motion, and nobody feels empowered to question it.Language is important if we want to encourage people. Recognise effort. Say please. Say thank you. Say “well done!” Use the simplest language possible, so people feel understood, and that they can make the best decisions for themselves with the information you’ve provided.Most importantly: don’t measure the success of your product by the amount of attention it receives. Measure its success by the positive impact it is having on people’s lives.

Kindness reflects kindly

Being kind means perceiving people as they are — with all their flaws, vulnerabilities, insecurities, and marvelously imperfect humaneness, and reflecting that back kindly. Showing people the good they have inside of them, but perhaps also shining a light on their inner critic and showing it for what it is: often a very unnecessary and illogical voice we carry with us. Kindness assumes positive intent.

How often have you worked with a product team and heard one of the following phrases:

Our users are stupid!We need to make this idiot-proof.Dumb it down a bit.

I think we’ve all heard these or versions of these. We might even have said these to ourselves (Especially if you’ve been in tech support, and in that case, I forgive you!). The thing is: people are not stupid or dumb or idiotic. They’re just…people. The best experiences I’ve worked on were the ones where the team understood and appreciated people’s vulnerabilities.

Richard Thaler, the well-known behavioural economist and co-author of ”Nudge”, wrote about Humans versus Econs. Econs are beings that carefully weigh the costs and benefits of alternatives before making decisions. They are analytical, reflective, effortful, deliberate, and patient. In Economical Theory and in Product Design, humans are often thought of as Econs. But they are not! Thank goodness. What an utterly boring world it would be. Psychologists have always known this.

Daniel Kahneman writes in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”:

“To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable. […]Their view of the world is limited by the information that is available at a given moment, and therefore they cannot be as consistent and logical as Econs. They are sometimes generous and willing to contribute to the group to which they are attached. And they often have little idea of what they will like next year or even tomorrow.”

Basically, humans are marvelously messy. As Product Team members, we need to embrace some understanding of this, so we can take advantage of what is marvelous, and support (and not exploit) what is messy.

How to reflect kindly:

Stop assuming that people are Econs. Know that they will sometimes behave irrationally, illogically, and inconsistently. Embrace it, and design and build for it.Be forgiving when people make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. And we make more of them when we are stressed and emotional and tired. Stop seeing mistakes as something negative and rather prepare for them and build your design to eliminate them completely, where possible. Mistakes are wonderful: they are how we learn and progress and grow — if we are given the opportunity to learn. Enough has been said about error handling in design. Take the guidelines to heart: prevent errors where possible, and where they can’t be prevented, provide helpful error messages. Assume positive intent: People don’t make mistakes on purpose.

Kindness is beautiful

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:”

~John Keats, Endymion

Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then picture the face of kindness. I’m serious. Do it. There is no right or wrong here: whatever that face looks like for you is your truth.

Perhaps the face of kindness is the face of a mother? Or a deity? Perhaps it is a philosopher or thought leader? It might not be a human face at all. But to you, the face of kindness will be beautiful.

We know that people are more forgiving towards products when they are beautiful. We associate kindness with beauty — sometimes disastrously! But I think that often (not always!) beautiful designs have been given more attention.

“Form follows function.”

~Louis Sullivan, Chicago Architect

Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh created a beautiful book, called “Beauty”, where they argue (and have convinced me, at least) that Beauty = Function. The Product world is sometimes obsessed with minimalist, functional design. Stripping things down to what is necessary, only. But beautiful objects and experiences that bring us joy, are often not “functional” at all.

Beauty, by Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh

Ingrid Fetell Lee has been researching the Joy of Aesthetics for more than a decade, and found that humans find universal joy in these 10 aesthetics:

Energy: vibrant color and lightAbundance: lushness, multiplicity, and varietyFreedom: nature, wildness, and open spaceHarmony: balance, symmetry, and flowPlay: circles, spheres, and bubbly formsSurprise: contrast and whimsyTranscendence: elevation and lightnessMagic: invisible forces and illusionsCelebration: synchrony, sparkle, and bursting shapesRenewal: blossoming, expansion, and curves”~Ingrid Fetell Lee, “Joyful”Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Notice the lack of Functionality, Usability, and Minimalism. These are good principles to follow if we want to help people with workable tools. But if we want to step into kindness, we often need more.

Don Norman wrote his famous book — “The Design of Everyday Things”. It’s a classic and it changed the way people think about usability and design.

Cover of “Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things”, by Don Norman

It was followed up by “Emotional Design”. He realised what Sagmeister and Walsh say with a lot of passion and swearing: functionality is important, but beauty is just as important — and in many cases, beauty doesn’t need to be functional at all. Beauty = Function.

This is almost a confession, but more importantly and beautifully a declaration:

“In the 1980s, in writing “The Design of Everyday Things”, I didn’t take emotions into account. I addressed utility and usability, function and form, all in a logical, dispassionate way — even though I am infuriated by poorly designed objects. But now I’ve changed. Why? In part because of new scientific advances in our understanding of the brain and of how emotion and cognition are thoroughly intertwined. We scientists now understand how important emotion is to everyday life, how valuable. Sure, utility and usability are important, but without fun and pleasure, joy and excitement, and yes, anxiety and anger, fear and rage, our lives would be incomplete.Along with emotions, there is one other point as well: aesthetics, attractiveness, and beauty. When I wrote “The Design of Everyday Things”, my intention was not to denigrate aesthetics or emotion. I simply wanted to elevate usability to its proper place in the design world, along with beauty and function. I thought that the topic of aesthetics was well-covered elsewhere.”~Don Norman, “Emotional Design”.

How to make your designs beautiful?

Consider context. Beauty is context-specific, so consider the context of your designs and the people who will be using them. See “Kindness is Empathetic”.Take time to craft your Products before and after they are functional. Your users will appreciate it and they will be more likely to forgive the bugs, and more likely to show your Product to other people.Invest in professional creatives. Too often, I have come across Product Teams with the best developers, architects and managers, but where visual design was handed to a junior person, or worse: not considered at all. It breaks my heart when this happens with B2B products that serve personnel who have no choice about the tools that they use. They are given functional solutions that are ugly — and often pretty low on usability as well. The message sent, as with non-inclusive designs, is not kind. We shape our products and our products shape us, in turn. If our designs communicate that kindness is unimportant, it will become unimportant to the people using them.


If you made it all the way to the conclusion of this piece, we should probably meet up and have coffee sometime. 🙂

Kindness is empathetic, inclusive, beautiful, sees suffering, and reflects kindly. But more importantly: it is powerful. It carries people through difficulties as nothing else can, and our world is full of difficulty right now.

Digital Products are powerful too. They are made once and then appear on countless, infinite screens. Replicated infinitely. They are making our children sick, damaging our relationships with one another, and are being used by some pretty unkind powers to make people more divided and extreme in their views.

But what if our Products could be a force of Kindness? What if our Products were built to provide an unexpected lift for people when they need it most? What if we could be the kind teacher telling the anxious child who’s feeling a little lonely, and worried about her place in the world and whether she’ll be able to cope: “Yes, you can. You can.”?

With the global mental pandemic in full swing, and political turmoil and war and uncertainty, a lot of grownups are feeling a little lonely, and worried about their place in the world and whether they’ll cope. The world is in need of kindness. And I believe that Product Designers are in a privileged position to play a powerful role.

Five Essential Qualities of Kindness and how to Design for them was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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