Web Devvy Ways to Practice Gratitude and Empathy

Have you seen THIS IS WATER? It's great. It's about choosing to think differently, especially when frustrated. I think about it all the time. For instance, every time someone cuts me off on the road, I assume they are rushing someone to the hospital. It doesn't always work, but it's nice when it does. And it's not just a trick, it's learning to think differently.

In a related vein, I've enjoyed attempting to practice gratitude the last few years. I have an app on my phone that bugs me to write something I was grateful for that day. Forcing yourself to look back on the day and be thankful for something is good for perspective. I'd love to link to some gratitude stuff, but everything seems to try and be selling something. I don't have any problem with selling things, that just isn't the vibe I'm after here. You don't have to buy anything to practice gratitude, it's about thinking differently.

In another related vein, I'm starting to think empathy really is one of the most valuable skills (if you can call it a skill) that you can have. If you can put yourself in another persons shoes, you can imagine what it's like to use the things you make. That gives you mad UX skills. It means you can write a damn fine support email. You can make a meeting worth having. You can communicate clearly, because you can imagine what it's like to receive that communication. I'm looking forward to reading this.

In yet another related vein, it would be hard to miss there are some problems in this world with gender. There are lots of problems in this world, this is one of them. I've been enjoying this book, leveling up my understanding of that.

I hope this isn't too preachy or anything. I'm just trying to get better at this stuff. It feels better. So with that wordy introduction, what can we do within our little web world to practice this stuff?

Read your emails, comments, and tweets back to yourself and imagine getting that yourself

Is it clear? Is it useful? Did you acknowledge and address everything other people were waiting for? Does it make the point you are most trying to make? If it's critical, were you able to convey that without rudeness? Does it feel like you?

Go the extra mile

The other day I was having problems with the articles on this site being saved to a third-party reading service correctly. Daniel Ryan copies one of the pages of this site over to his own server to test it. I didn't ask for that. I didn't hire him to do that. He just went the extra mile when I was asking for advice.

You can't do that every single time for every single situation, but you can when you can and people always notice.

Thank people that go the extra mile for you

Don't let that slip by. Being more thankful in general is a good goal, and these are big easy targets to start with. Don't rule out a gift. I recently learned that some people (apparently I'm not one of them) that really love getting gifts. It's like the ultimate way they feel appreciated.

Practice being critical without being a jerk

You don't have to like everything. But hopefully when you don't, it's for a reason that you can articulate. And you can explain that without it being a personal attack or petty insult.

Related: It's possible to take the high ground without being condescending.

Related: You can always stop being a jerk in an exchange even after you've started. Anger begets anger, kindness begets kindness.

Related: Being internally skeptical is healthy.

Do the crap-jobs

Like writing docs. Like taking a weekend shift. Like taking out the office trash. It's not about being taken advantage of or wasting time, it's about saying thanks by freeing up someone else's time.

Report bugs

I once took an all-day bus tour of some of the volcanoes in Costa Rica. How cool, right? Only guess what, it was rainy and foggy. We didn't see a single volcano. We drove around in the rain and occasionally got out, got wet, and got back on the bus. It was a pretty awful day. We would have had more fun and spent less money not going at all. But by the end, we all felt some camaraderie with everyone else on the tour, and even with the tour guide.

At the end of it, we were asked to fill out review cards. My friend Kevin left a critical review. I was like c'mmmmmonnnn, it's not their fault it was foggy and rainy. He was right though. His review wasn't rude, it was honest. While it wasn't their fault it was foggy and rainy, it was their fault that they took us on a full-day tour anyway with no back up plan. They didn't alter anything to make it more fun under the circumstances. If we all just left happy reviews, what motivation would they have to make it better?

In web development, you aren't showing empathy by not reporting bugs. You are showing empathy by reporting bugs.

Make reduced test cases

As a proprietor of some web forums and some open-source projects, I'm always amazed at how many threads would benefit from a reduced test case. When you're having a problem, it shows you value everyone else's time involved when you strip it down to the the minimum amount need to reproduce it. As a side benefit, a lot of times you'll solve the problem and learn something while doing it.

Contribute to open source

This is a broad statement that gets tossed around a lot. Because it's true. What better way to show gratitude than to contribute your time and smarts to something that a lot of people benefit from?

Get the paid version / Use the donate button

I would guess most businesses don't want sympathy-buys, but rather they want your money when they have been useful to you. For better or worse, freemium is a rather established standard for web products. Sometimes the only way to get traction is giving away as much usefulness as you can without going broke. Financial support is certainly a form of gratitude, whether it's signing up for a paid plan or sending in a donation to someone accepting them for their work.

Write in to support just to say thanks

Everyone I've known who excels at support has both tremendous empathy, but also a thick hide. They know they are encountering customers at their most frustrated and are in for some abuse.

Not only can you practice your empathy skills while dealing with customer support when you actually have a problem, you can reach out just to say thanks when you don't have a problem at all.


I'm turning off comments for this post. Normally I love comment threads, but I think this topic needs more than just quick responses. If you have thoughts on gratitude, empathy, and our industry, let's go classic-style: blog back at me!