Vulcan Inc. is a Consortium Member of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) which offers graduate programs in technology innovation in Bellevue, WA. Founded by the University of Washington, Tsinghua University, and Microsoft, the program helps young entrepreneurs and recent graduates who want to learn how to design, build, and launch innovative solutions for connected devices or robotics. A group of GIX students, along with Vulcan team members, recently worked on a new project called Empathics, which applies new technology to improving human communication.
Vulcan's participation with GIX provides a path to support young talent entering the workforce as critical innovators. Plus, it’s an opportunity for students, along with Vulcan, to develop short, time-boxed, R&D projects that explore new areas of philanthropic technology which can potentially impact the world and catalyze change.
The group of GIX students we are working with embarked on the Empathics project sponsored by Vulcan. As Vulcan Impact team members, myself and UX Designer Jenna James supported the project; other Vulcan experts provided guidance and mentorship; and Chris Emura, Director of Impact Engineering, oversaw the project.
Empathics are a new field of devices — personal tools that bring a new layer of understanding to human communication. These new devices identify and reveal the underlying emotions of our one-on-one conversations. They recognize our emotional states — anxiety, frustration, happiness — and communicate them to our counterparts in the form of nudges. Nudges are gentle signals that indicate how another person is feeling in real-time.
Imagine having a sixth sense, a gentle signal that told you if other people were upset, or if the words you are using pleases them. Would you act differently? Would you better understand where to take the conversation? Would you share your feelings more openly?
So often, we find it difficult to connect and understand the underlying meaning behind the words we say to one another. We come away frustrated or confused. "They are giving me mixed signals.” Sometimes we say one thing, but mean something else.
When we speak to someone, each phrase is interpreted by our counterpart, filtered by that person’s lifetime of social cues and prior communication, then consumed by our counterpart. Emotion is the driver of communication — and the more crucial the discussion, the more emotionally-charged and fragile that conversation becomes.
In many of our daily communications, there is potential for an unbalanced power dynamic. Consider conversations between doctors and patients, teachers and students, parents and their children, or managers and employees. These conversations aren’t unbalanced because of personal tyranny or dominance, but simple human psychology.
In these situations, empathy is key to the exchange of useful and actionable information. A power dynamic can stifle the transfer of honest communication; those with less power may feel nervous about upsetting an authority, even when reassured. Without empathy, these communications fail their objective and, in some cases, deliver a poor outcome.
One place this shows up often is in doctors' offices where research shows that patients tend to not reveal long-standing complaints and symptoms because they fear being perceived as a burden, weak, or whiny. This dynamic may leave patients feeling unheard and told what to do without any authority to object.
These situations happen every day and harm patient health outcomes. Established communication frameworks exist and provide guidance for de-escalation and responding to emotions, but doctors often don't know when to use these strategies.
In contrast, patients who feel like they are part of a collaborative exchange choose treatments with their doctors and statistically have better health outcomes. Cooperative communication in doctors' offices correlates with higher pain tolerance in patients, shorter recovery times, reduced tumor growth, and fewer malpractice suits.
Malpractice suits in Washington state alone pay out an estimated average of $64.26 million USD per year from 2012-2016. The majority of medical malpractice suits stem not from negligence but treatment decisions that patients felt they did not have a part in making and had a negative result. People could avoid this distrust and miscommunication by giving authorities the tools to better empathize with their patients (employees, students, etc.) so that patients feel like their opinion is heard. In other words: to better understand, as if by a sixth sense, how the patient is emotionally responding to their words; to identify a negative response and de-escalate a tense situation before it begins or to understand when a person is hurting and console them.
It is our project thesis that a simple signal of positive or negative sentiments can significantly increase the quality of communication in the majority of one-on-one interactions.
We believe this is true, even more so, in the case of a one-sided power dynamic. And when it comes to patient-doctor communication, we have the opportunity to save lives and improve the health outcomes of millions of people. There is much to explore and design, and we will cover some of those explorations in future blog posts. The team is testing early prototypes now, and there will be much to share in the coming weeks.
GIX students (from left to right) Shine Lin, Tian Feng, LeAnn Huang, and Christopher Tran. Photographed by Jenna James.
Special thanks to Jenna James for her leadership on this project and excellent mentorship to our cohort of students, Emily Amundson for her guidance and mentorship in UX Research, Jay Thiagarajan for his engineering leadership and Chris Emura, our executive sponsor who guides all of our work with GIX. And of course, our fantastic student cohort Tian Feng, Shine Lin, LeAnn Huang, and Christopher Tran. Their work and knowledge are inspiring.
Follow our project and story on Instagram @gixempathics
. If you would like to help with this project, we are always looking for mentors and guest speakers that can offer useful guidance. In addition, we are looking for subject matter experts and medical professionals for September user interviews. If you are interested in participating, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.