Inside the Google Empathy Lab
Behind the scenes with the team at Google, helmed by Danielle Krettek, that's moving beyond design thinking to design feeling.
In 2015, Danielle Krettek began to notice, as she puts it, “the same story rising up,” from a number of projects she was working on as part of Google’s Design and Machine Intelligence teams. Tech was in the midst of yet another seemingly seismic shift, with multi-touch and screens giving way to a new paradigm, where devices seemed to have their own brains and would have conversations with us. Our relationship to technology was changing significantly, again—yet our approach to designing it remained the same.
What felt missing to Krettek was consideration of the deeper layers of the human experience. Technology was now with us from sunup to sundown, in increasingly intimate ways. Yet it didn’t feel like it was being designed for all of our “beautifully real, messy human selves.”
Krettek, who earned her stripes with Apple and Nike (Wieden + Kennedy), set out to change that—and the Google Empathy Lab was born. The lab’s foundation is in rigorous, risk-taking research and design provocations. But their methods differ from what you’ll see elsewhere—as Krettek says, they’re “explorations into a future full of feeling.” She describes her work as Design Feeling—an evolution, she says, of design thinking, a practice that blends ideas from art, film and other storytelling media with the core practices of research, inquiry and product design. dscout sat down with her to chat about her approach and what goes on behind the scenes at the Empathy Lab.
dscout: Let’s start at the (sort of) start. How did you build the case for an Empathy Lab at Google?
Danielle: I enjoy sharing this story because it’s often surprising to people that there wasn’t some “big pitch” moment. Starting the Empathy Lab was not the scene from Flashdance, with me jazz-dancing in front of a panel to get it funded. The lab’s origin rose out of work I did over a short period of time—a series of creatively-angled research studies and design explorations.
I got really curious with an inquiry into living harmoniously with technology—taking advantage of all of these leaps in the technology, machine learning, material science—and trying to play with possibilities based on what we know to be deeply and universally true for humans. Our neurobiology, our stories and our psychology. I was fascinated by the reality that devices are now woven into our lives, our habits, our thoughts...yet they aren’t attuned to us or sensitive to our inner lives and outer contexts. They tend to be dialed to our productive selves—human doing, not messier human being. After listening to people, I wondered about the spaces that really define who and how we are, our quiet moments, daydreamings, ruminations, goals, reflections. I started exploring the invisible layers of emotional resonance, taking inspiration from non-verbal communication and the subtle ways we all connect because they’re wired inside us. I was looking for slow truths (that never change). I knew if we paid close attention early on in this new paradigm of AI, we could feel a future people couldn’t yet point to but showed early signs of—softer and more graciously attuned than what we know today.
And they went for it.
I’m grateful they did. They said “You’re onto to something, keep going.” So that was the beginning, though I didn’t call it the Empathy Lab right away. I gave it that name because of our mission to expand into a more spacious understanding of all the layers of a person that we’re designing for. It needed a name so it wasn’t just me; I wanted it to be something everyone could claim to be part of. Empathy lives in everyone. So while the roots of the lab are my personal interdisciplinary and liberal-arts-style approach to research and product thinking, the Design Feeling approach is for everyone to play with. It applies to every single thing you’re doing or making.
So what does that mean practically, day to day? What kind of work is the Lab doing?
A lot of people ask me that question—it’s easy to be distracted by the shiny peak moments like working with Brene Brown, Frans de Waal or Krista Tippett...and forget that underpinning those is a mountain of deeply obsessed inquiry and scientific rigor. Dreaming tethered to doing. My day-to-day looks like yours, too many meetings, writing and sketching, thinking out loud in ways that often don’t yet make sense —in conversations with our team and my outside collaborators. Like dscout, of course, my longtime partner in wild and inspired research. I also make a point to start my day with creative nourishment.
If you’re open to it, EVERYTHING is research. Being curious, noticing, making connections—that magpie mind superpower is what builds a nest of fresh ideas and methods, ways into big questions.
How does that find "nourishment" its way into your work?
Well, of course it inspires our creative artifacts—small books with artists, short films both product concept and documentary forms. More obliquely though, at the Empathy Lab, everything is inquiry. What I mean by that is—a strong thread of me is a researcher, but there are many other cords that braid into my way of seeing, listening to and internalizing the experiences of people and the world. Maybe one way I’m fundamentally different as a researcher is that I don’t limit what I think of as “research.” If you’re open to it, EVERYTHING is research. Being curious, noticing, making connections—that magpie mind superpower is what builds a nest of fresh ideas and methods, brighter and wider apertures into big questions. A vast gathering of materials is so critical to a richly textured understanding. I go to Sundance (film festival) every year because for me, film and art are methodologies. They are a profound means for digging into the felt struggles of the human experience. Both are “machines for empathy” because they show us in others what we universally know in our own bones. Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More is chock-full of methods—my favorites being creating motivational banners for strangers and taking a picture under your bed. Specific directors I consider mentors, even—Spike Jonze deeply inspires me because I love the tenderness of humanity that he unfolds in his characters, while rendering their stories with such life-giving imagination.
As an example of making methodologies from films—last year I saw Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham, whose work I adore. It was about this sweet girl going through the peak of her awkward adolescence in our tech-ed up time—the tension that defined her was that she was giving life advice on YouTube, like how to be confident...meanwhile she’s at pool parties trying to fit in. It’s just so thick with the self-consciousness of that season of life. In it she does this time capsule exercise for school, opening one from her former self, and making one for her future self—both full of wishes, hopes and bright blushes of insecurity. She sets fire to the old one after this big moment of conflict and catharsis with her dad, and you see her step from one self into the next in this ritual moment of shedding. I was like, "Wow! That is a brilliant methodology"—a time capsule, a conversation with your former and future selves. It’s the act of a mystic, where a person gets to creatively tell and re-tell their own story to realign with their best self. So I thought, perfect, I’ll use that. And I have; it yielded the most incredible stories in this little book called Listening by Feeling...which we call data (laughs). Just like people say, there are stories everywhere that you look—for me, there are creative methods, juicy questions and yummy feelings to open up and inquire into everywhere.
Where do you start with that, the first step of research?
I love this work because my research is inherently seeking provocation, so the design can be an inquiry into a deeper space than just the thing to be made. It’s the fruitful intersection of art and research. To speak to the research side…it’s exploratory in the truest sense, which is I start with a big question, or a space that feels foggy, rather than a handful of objectives. I usually write those after, honestly. Because if you start with the soul of a space, you’ll always find the reality. But if you start with reality alone, the soul of it will stay a mystery. Research is living in this way: You start with a keen interest and awareness, and you let it take you where it wants to go. It lives and breathes and shifts and you stay with it until you hit that place where there’s a multidimensional map—and everything is clear before you. Empathy Lab was founded on discovery research like this, mapping territories and giving people a new way of seeing their decision or design. It’s not to give answers, it’s to rewire circuits—that’s why the provocation style works. It’s a new lens on a topic or area. And so much of the Design Feeling way is different because research often walks through a “reason” door, with things to quantify and data points to gather...and we need all of that, we do that too. But the reality is that all human experience and decision making is full of feelings, it’s through the emotional door. That is the birthplace of the experiences that people love. So I make sure to go through that door first.
In a way the idea of the Lab seems so logical, because, as you’ve said, tech has become so completely integrated with our everyday experience—and so of course it should be designed with an eye toward fundamental human concerns. But in a way it feels equally crazy to say that, because technology and humanity are not always things we put side by side. Some people would argue that in order to really find human moments of connection you have to divorce yourself from technology. So in that way the idea of the Lab feels both completely natural and completely contrary at the same time.
I think science is never absent its heart. Actually, if you’ll indulge me, there’s a little story that that describes that well. It’s one I learned from an immensely talented artist friend, Dario Robleto.
In the summer of 1977, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan were working on NASA's Voyager Interstellar Message Project—Druyan was NASA’s Creative Director on the project. And they were working on the Voyager Golden Records, which are these phonograph records that were onboard both of the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. And a lot of people know about the golden record project, but not many people know that that was the summer Carl and Ann fell in love.
They were working on finding a song for the record, because the whole idea of the project was that it would carry the essence and the signature of humanity for thousands or millions of years so that some alien life form in the future could discover it. So the question of what you choose to put on the record is obviously massive, it’s the ultimate time capsule. You can’t just throw The Beatles’ White Album on there, you have to think about all of humanity and all of time.
Ann found this 2,500-year-old ancient Chinese song called Flowing River and she called Carl and they listened to it. That’s all anyone knows of that phone call. But at the beginning of the call they were colleagues, and by the end of the call, they were engaged. So then—
Wait, wait, wait. Hold up. Seriously?
How long was the call?
I think not very long. Probably a half an hour or something like that? No one knows, they’ve never shared any of the other contents of that call.
Wow. Okay, sorry to interrupt.
Isn’t that amazing, though? I was so blown away by this story. The other thing they decided they would put on the record was a series of electrical signals representing the biorhythms of the body—so the aliens would have an understanding of our human physiology. So Ann went to the hospital to record her biorhythms, and she spent that time meditating on falling in love with Carl, how exquisite and precious they were at that phase in their relationship. So what’s extraordinary is that as Voyager is flying through space (Editor’s note: Voyager 2, carrying the golden record, entered interstellar space in December 2018), if another life form finds it one day, they’ll find a recording not just of a human woman, but of a human woman at the moment she’s falling in love. It’s not just this incredible scientific achievement. It’s an achievement for humanity for feeling.
It also feels like it connects back to your idea that we shouldn’t just be designing for our most productive selves, but for our messy whole selves. That feels like such a breath of fresh air. The idea that technology can be something that’s not just about optimizing time and making us more efficient. That instead of doing more, it lets us feel more.
Yeah, you said it for me. I’m all about Design Feeling, where we get courageous and embrace everything that’s just broken open into culture in the last few years—vulnerability, honesty, social and emotional intelligence, activism—that’s how we’ll get tech’s EQ to match its IQ and change business in the process. Bring your whole self in to work, and into the work. In the future, what feels good, what feels right? What do we want it to feel like when we’re there? How do we want to feel within ourselves, how do we want to be with each other?
I’m all about Design Feeling, where we get courageous and embrace everything that’s just broken open in culture—vulnerability, honesty, social and emotional intelligence—that’s how we’ll get tech’s EQ to match its IQ and change business in the process.
Einstein says that you can't solve a problem at the level it was created. Let’s evolve to a more expansive place where design does more than address a problem space. That feels radically insufficient for where we are now. Let's take a more interesting shape, one that encourages and supports wholeness, feeling ourselves, like we can be expressed and not judged or expect to fit some aspirational mold (or target). Look at the diversity of voice that's happening in culture right now. We need to make space for that. We can't just lop off the shapes that don't fit. For me, the move to design feeling allows a lot more breadth and space for the things you wouldn't normally listen for, because it isn't a matter of economy, it's a matter of human spectrum and expression.
Twenty years ago, thinking about our emotional intelligence or EQ was pretty revelatory. Now we’re thinking not just about a machine’s connection to EQ, but looking at how a machine can make you feel like you’re having a more human experience. That feels a little bit more that revolutionary—it feels completely unknown.
I think that’s the defining paradox of this work, and the thing a lot of people misunderstand about it. It isn’t about making machines that feel or machines that have empathy. That’s the 180’ of the point, which is we are going to have all of these incredibly intelligent forms of technology as continuous presences deeply woven into our lives. We want to feel they’re deep, loyal allies, living supportively and graciously with us.
It’s a beautiful idea that machines could perceive our curiosity or our need for growth, our intertias and loops, to understand what could make up our human flourishing. Because again, we aren’t just what we do—the best version of yourself isn’t the version that gets up earlier in the morning and works out every day and gets it all done. Your most fully expressed self is not any perfect shape but something that likely defies geometry. Like the coastal edge that can’t be precisely measured without being walked. Growth and learning and meaningful connection is our human life force. The way that we feel, the things we think when we’re not thinking about anything. That feeling you have when you come home and anything that’s not you falls away, between the notes of your life, how can that invisible shift be met gently with loving presence?
Machines aren’t designed for that right now and they should be, because those are some of our most interesting, needed moments. You know, Lewis Carroll described Alice in Wonderland in terms of her “muchness.” It’s like those moments are about our muchness, the place where all of the good things in us quietly live.
I've never heard that before. I love that.
And when I think about what I want from tech and AI, I want it to protect those messy moments of “muchness” for all of us. Not just remind us when our order is ready to pick up from the grocery store so life can be easier. Human life isn’t beautiful and graceful when it’s easy. It’s actually when complexity holds you in a space where you appreciate the fullness of what is going on as you walk through the world.
So how can you design for that when it comes to a machine? How do you give it the tools to become a collaborator and to help improve the human empathetic experience? That is not a small charge.
There's a really complicated, dense way to answer the question, which is to get into model training and decision trees and the data that you use to train machines and all that. That is the technical answer. But the true answer for me is actually quite simple, and it’s that you need to be present in the room and answer from the neck down when you’re having conversations about all those things. The reality is, if you're present with more than just your mind, what you ensure is that wider values will stay intact as machine learning comes into form and goes into use. But if you aren't talking about those things, it won't.
I enter the Google office and meeting with purpose, I’m very conscious about the way that I show up. I like to think of it this way: there's this mug that my mom got me when we were in Japan many moons ago, and the fingerprint of the person who made it is imprinted on the design. It’s part of a Japanese design tradition which is that you don’t try to make something perfect, because imperfection leaves room and respect for the design. But the fact that this mug has a fingerprint on it is so meaningful to me, because what happens is when I'm drinking from the mug in a particular way, my fingerprint meets their fingerprint. It's this beautiful thing where the hand of the maker is meeting the hand of the person holding the cup of tea on the other side. You really feel the values and the mind and the heart of someone who is making for you. I'm a really big believer in the way that the machines make their presence known in a way that feels different to us or it feels good to us, feels supportive, harmonious, whatever—ease, joy, whatever you want to resonate there.
If you’re present with more than just your mind, what you ensure is that wider values will stay intact as machine learning comes into form and goes into use. But if you aren’t talking about those things, it won’t.
I think that's the difference between design thinking and design feeling. With design feeling, you acknowledge the fact that your fingerprint is going to be on that mug. You take responsibility for it and show up and say, "We’re not going to talk about calendars today." Instead we’re going to focus on the fact that we have we have a large section of our audience that is going through really tough times, be it divorce, be it loss, be it a situation at work. How do we design for that in this nook and cranny of their universe?
That’s the way that you design AI. It’s just like you design anything else. You look at the data that you're training a model on and you really consider it and then you think about every edge of an interface and how it’s going to land in a real, messy, alive human experience. Again, it's interesting because it doesn't sound like it's that different —but it is. It's this kind of care, love and attention to all those invisible things that really add up on the other side...and is felt.
Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.
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