The best reviews are an act of empathy.

I was reminded of this just last week when I noticed some reviewers dismiss the value of a new feature in Apple’s latest iPadOS update: the Scribble.

A bit of context: I use the iPad Pencil to take handwritten notes at work, for church, in meetings and even some conversations. Often I would find I needed to type something (a quick Google search, say, or reply to a message), which meant I had to switch to the keyboard. Every time that happened I wished I could just use the Pencil already in my hand. I did use apps that converted my handwriting to text (the brilliant MyScript Nebo—and also Notability) but that wasn’t as good as a system-wide function.

And then Apple dropped the Scribble feature this week.

Scribble on iPadOS 14 lets you use Apple Pencil to write in any text field and convert your handwriting to text on the fly. Exactly what I’d been hoping for. I updated that very night (which is always advised against—but that’s how excited I was about it) and that feature was the very first thing I tested. Here’s a video of me testing it that I shared with a friend that same night.

Me tripping about Scribble

The smoothness of the writing, the fluidity, watching it translate on the fly—all of that made it such a delight to use. But even better were the little touches! Like how you could being able to delete a word by crossing it out like you would in regular writing (you’ll see that at 0:07 in the video). Or how you could draw a short line to join or separate words (at 0:25). Or how you can insert a new word into already typed text. These were all my favourite features from the Nebo app (which is still better for long-form handwriting), but now I could use them in any app!

But to some reviewers, it was no more than a fun little trick.

“If X has no value to me, then X has no value.”

No one would use those words, of course. That’s not the kind of thought any decent person would consciously think. 

But consider how two other features suffered a similar fate at reviewers’ hands. Back Tap lets you tap the, well, back of your phone to trigger specific features, from flashlight to opening an app or running an automation. Sound Recognition alerts you to specific sounds your phone picks up on, from a doorbell or dog bark, to running water. If it isn’t immediately obvious how cool both of those features are, just take a look at the videos below.

Back Tap in action
Sound Recognition in action

Except, neither was even announced during the keynote, nor are they exactly obvious. Rather they’re hidden away under—wait for it—Accessibility settings. For people with disabilities. People who, you know, really need them. Whether they work well is another question, of course, but to dismiss the features themselves as gimmicky? 

That’s a failure of empathy. 

I’m sure if you asked any of these reviewers of hidden accessibility features why they were being so dismissive, they’d be mortified you would even imagine them thinking that way. Some have even apologised, which is why I’m not naming names. However, conscious or not, this kind of dismissal has an effect that’s only too real.

Because dismissing the value of a thing is, in a sense, dismissing those to whom that thing is valuable. 

Worse, if that dismissal becomes widespread. Because, if we’re being honest, this isn’t just a reviewer problem. It’s a human problem, and we all do it—I know I have. 

Which makes it worth exploring: how do otherwise decent people become so dismissive—and what can we do to change this? 

How we lose empathy

Empathy is at the core of being human. It’s how we engage with one of the fundamental challenges of being self-conscious: to know that I am a self is to recognise the existence of other selves, and that they have intentions, preferences, and views different from mine. And empathy—which is an act of imagination—is how we bridge that gap.

You may have heard of the phrase, “What’s in it for me?” or WIIFM—a standard question business students are taught to think about in marketing products. WIIFM matters because that’s the question potential consumers will ask, and thinking about it beforehand helps remind the marketer to have answers ready. In that way, WIIFM becomes what I’ll call an empathy trigger*—to help them step back from themselves and enter into the customers’ shoes.

The same applies to reviewers. One way to think about it is that a reviewer’s job is to offer consumers an answer to, “What’s in it for me?” but as a fellow consumer. That is, unlike the marketer the reviewer (hopefully) has no vested interest in getting the consumer to buy—or else, they’re only marketers in another form.

The problem is when reviewers make themselves the “me” in “What’s in it for me?” They centre themselves rather than their audience. Which would be fine if their audience consisted entirely of people like them—but is it ever?

This self-centring is the core of how decent people lose empathy: by centring ourselves when we really should centre others.

For reviewers, “others” is their audience. But as in the other two examples above, “others” included those with disabilities, because accessibility features are made with them in mind, with any benefit to us being secondary. And for any of us, “others” might be women, or minorities, or other people at a disadvantage for whatever reason. 

Recovering empathy: WITF

How can we move away from a tendency to make things about “What’s in it for me?” And not just reviewers, of course, but you. And me.

I’ve found it helps to change the question, to try a different empathy trigger. And not to, “What’s in it for you?” On the surface that might seem helpful, but not only is it harder to answer than might seem obvious, but it’s also a potential trap: we can easily insert ourselves into “you” without realising it.

Try this question instead:

“Who is this for?” (Or as I’m calling it, WITF.)

Notice how this triggers a shift from what to who—a subtle shift with potentially massive consequences. Unlike WIIFM, the WITF question comes built in with the assumption: someone other than me may be the focus here. And that alone makes it a great empathy trigger. 

Shifting attention from myself frees me to notice others—and especially others who aren’t like me. And there’s a pleasure in being able to recommend useful stuff, to tell someone, “This isn’t for me, but I think you’ll absolutely love it!” It’s thoughtful and it makes people feel seen—especially if they were already feeling invisible. And that alone is a reward in itself: that moment of connection—one person to another—and that smile (or shriek!) of delight it brings to the other person.

When we recognise the humanity of another—which is what empathy is about—we connect with our own humanity. In truly seeing the other, we see ourselves. 

And that’s just one way empathy ends up benefiting us too. Sometimes it’s more direct. Take the image below from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit, which demonstrates how features created to help people with disabilities often end up benefiting others in unplanned ways. 

I experienced this myself last winter: I had to wear gloves to protect my hands in the freezing cold. Suddenly, the voice control feature for people with motor disabilities became a reason for gratitude.

That’s why diversity matters.

So I hope the next time you see something that doesn’t seem personally useful (like some reviewers saw Scribble), I hope you take a moment to think about who else it might really be for. Because when you honestly ask, “Who is this for?” you might come to find it’s for you, too.

* “Empathy trigger”: I made up the term while writing this, but figured someone might have used it before, so I Googled it. Turned out someone had: a Sylvia Kim, in this HuffPost article.

Acknowledgement: My thanks to Adam Tank, Hal Morris, Charlie Bleecker and Dipan Patel for their feedback on early drafts.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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