This weekend on Saturday, August 20th, I participated in the first Empathy Jam hosted by The UX Lab at New York City’s General Assembly campus. It was an intensive, all-day, research based, hackathon-style problem solving session for designers to make NYC a better place to live. I’ve been learning user experience design and research on my own for eight months now and this event allowed me to put everything I know into practice. The best part was validating my passion for UX and gaining confidence to keep chasing after this career path. Here’s my recap of the event, along with my biggest takeaways.



On The UX Lab’s Meetup page, this event is described as “a research and design event that brings NYC’s residents and government together to collaborate on new ways to feel connected, supported, and excited about creating our city’s future. At the Empathy Jam you will learn and practice User Experience Design methods, learn how empathy can connect you with those around you (fellow residents, and your government leaders!), and build something that has lasting impact.

So what exactly will we build? “At the end of the Empathy Jam, together we will have created empathy-driven solutions to specific city-living challenges, as well as new ways to help NYC residents and governments feel like teammates.” [Click here to see the Empathy Jam handout]

The day started at 9:00am with complimentary coffee and a lively atmosphere at NYC’s General Assembly. I knew it was going to be an enriching day with a lot of creative juice going around. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly impressed with the quality of the event and the energy in the room.

I must say, this event was quite possibly the best bang for the buck. For $5, I exercised my knowledge of UX, met great people, was provided breakfast, lunch and dinner (and dessert), learned more about the design process and walked away with a solid project to get New Yorkers connected through public spaces.


After brief introductions on the event, we jumped right into learning the framework for performing user research led by Sonya Bentovich, Manager of User Research from Sachs Insights. Many important points were covered in this session such as asking questions the right way, assigning roles in user interviews and carrying yourself with confidence when talking to people. User research is the core of practicing empathy so it was especially important to understand the concepts discussed in this portion.


user research presentation on eliminating leading questions.

We split into groups of four and I had the pleasure of working with a variety of people from different backgrounds. I was the researcher and was supported by a designer/producer, an analyst and a project manager/developer. Our challenge was to tackle one of the three areas: civic engagement, public transportation or public spaces. We came up with great ideas for each of the areas based on our own experiences living in the city and ultimately settled with utilizing public spaces to connect people through technology.

We discussed how to identify the problem and came up with questions to help us gather insights from users. We agreed on some questions as well as a solid definition of “public spaces” as areas that are not private residences or businesses. We split up into pairs and went out to either Madison Square Park or Union Square Park to do intercept interviews. My partner and I alternated as the interviewer and note-taker and approached strangers to get their opinions on community engagement in public spaces.

Some questions we asked were:

  • How important is it for you to engage with public spaces? (Why?)
  • How are ways you engage with the community in public spaces?
  • Can you share with us the most memorable experience (good or bad) that you’ve had in a public space?
  • What are communities you’ve connected with in public spaces?
  • What do you value about public spaces?

During the intercept interviews, we specifically targeted individuals that are active mobile users. Our goal was to build a mobile app so we conducted interviews with people who would be the likeliest users of our product. Surprisingly, most people we approached were open to share their thoughts and gave examples of their relationships with public spaces. I was most excited about the diverse range of needs that emerged from these interviews. Many of these needs were not initially anticipated so it’s wonderful to talk with actual users and listen to what they have to say.


post user research: pulling up common themes from our interviews.

With great insights in hand, we went back to the table to pull up common themes from our interviews. Everyone we spoke to had something different to say. Some were passionate about engaging with the community. To others, socializing with people in a public space isn’t a priority but they appreciate being able to go to a park or a garden and enjoy the environment. From there, we synthesized our findings, defined a problem and came up with potential solutions through the card sorting process. This was much harder than we thought but my group mates and I played on each other’s strengths and figured out what needed to be done.


card sorting: synthesizing insights, defining a problem and creating solutions.

Once a problem was defined, we shifted into creating an artifact that represents our potential solution so we can test it out and validate the need for it. We loved the idea of a Pokemon Go inspired, augmented reality app that connects people in public spaces in real time. We sketched out a few paper prototypes to get a visual sense of what our product will look like. Afterwards, half of us started working on the presentation while the other half went out to the park for a second time to get user feedback. It was great hearing honest opinions from the people we approached.


paper prototyping: visualizing our solution.

In the final hour, we put our heads together to come up with a three-minute presentation (yes, only three minutes!) to share what we learned and accomplished in the last six hours. Since our time was incredibly limited, we took out a lot of insightful points and had to stick to things that got to the core of the problem. Our group was the first one up and it was a lot of pressure to set the tone for the remainder seventeen presentations to come. We did manage to give everyone a glimpse of what we did, though we wish we had more time. Despite the challenges, it was a phenomenal experience.


The nine and a half hours I spent at General Assembly with my group was incredibly fulfilling. It felt great to finally piece together everything I know about user experience and actually go through the process on a project that is contributive to the city’s well being. Participating in this event motivated me to start projects that have been marinating nicely in my head. It’s definitely time to start creating some tangible work with those ideas. Let’s get into my biggest takeaways from Saturday.


announcing winners!

1. Iterate our own research process
Since user research is a critical component of designing with empathy, it’s important to iterate our own research process. My partners and I recapped after each interview and came up with alternative ways to ask questions to get users to share what they’re really thinking. As we work towards identifying our users’ pain points, we also have to identify our own pain points during research and address them early on. It requires a lot of self-awareness and team-awareness to be a successful UX practitioner and collaborate effectively. It’s also necessary to have pauses in between the highs and lows of the process to evaluate what’s happening and get everyone back on the same page.

2. Empathy goes beyond talking to people
This Empathy Jam’s challenge focused on how to exercise empathy in design. Sometimes, I get frustrated with the design community because people abuse that word and it’s practically watered down.But, it shouldn’t be that way. Empathy is not just about talking to users and gathering insights. It’s also about resonating with their pain points. If we want to exercise our empathy muscle, we need to ask questions the right way that eliminates judgment. We need to speak their language. Being empathetic requires us to forget what we believe to be common sense because people internalize experiences differently and the world is full of diverse needs.

3. Don’t try to please everyone
Oftentimes, researchers say that you are in big trouble if “everyone” is your user. It was tempting to include every group of New York City inhabitants in our solution. NYC is a remarkable place where almost every group of people is represented in one form or another. However, trying to include everyone just led to more problems. Instead of pleasing everyone, I learned that it’s more productive to focus on a specific group of people who have specific needs and cater a solution to that. In fact, products can actually fail when the targeted group of users include a wide variety of people. It’s much more effective when you’re not pleasing everyone.

4. Asking “what can go wrong?” is valuable
When we approached users for feedback, I noticed that some were holding back from giving us their raw and honest opinions. Wanting to overcome that hurdle, my partner and I brainstormed ways to get users to tell us the raw and honest truth. So we started asking, “what can go wrong?” and users spilled all the reasons why our product sucks. But that’s a good thing! As designers, we’re not looking for a false sense of validation, but rather a real sense of what the problems are. Yes, it’s important to understand how a product adds value to people but it’s equally as important to understand how it can hurt them too. Addressing those issues early on in the design process is critical.

5. Passion is the best form of fuel
I have to thank each and every person that contributed his or her passion for design. What I love about the design community is that people are in it because they are passionate about solving problems. We, as designers, are in a humbling position where we can add value to society. I haven’t heard a single designer say “well, I became a designer because reality hit and I needed a career that could provide for me.” Sure, it’s an added plus that UX designers, product managers and developers get paid substantially for their work. But based on the energy in the room, passion is what fuels designers to come together to collaborate on projects that address real, human problems.


team 1: Zulaica, Aaron, Kari and I. We did it!


I’m incredibly thankful for all the people involved in putting this event together. I can only imagine how exhausted everyone was after the event. To begin with, we all voluntarily woke up early on a Saturday to collaborate on projects to improve our own city. Do you know how much dedication that requires? When this event happens again, I’ll be sure to join. I do wish that the event was longer so I could delve deeper into the design process rather than speed right through it. Perhaps it could be a two-day session where a few more presentations are provided. I wouldn’t mind paying more either.

This was definitely a necessary experience to take my career to the next step. I have many projects I’ve wanted to pursue in the back of my mind. This event helped me gain the confidence to pursue those projects since I am much more familiar with the design process. Even during the times when my group had disagreements or roadblocks, I found it enjoyable because it just shows how passionate we are about creating value for users. When there’s Empathy Jam round 2, I’ll be there!




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