Ideas by Bridgeable

Empathy, failure, and the importance of play

A conversation with Twenty One Toys Founder Ilana Ben-Ari

Every year, Bridgeable hosts Bridgeable Day, our own internal conference, where employees share knowledge and present on topics that apply to their day-to-day roles. Last Bridgeable Day, we invited Twenty One Toys to join us to demonstrate the Empathy Toy, a game that requires players to solve a puzzle while blindfolded. In order to complete the challenge, they must listen to — and understand — what other players are saying. We were excited to use the Empathy Toy and learn about how it can be used to facilitate discussions about the role of empathy and communication in the workplace. After the demonstration, we sat down with Founder Ilana Ben-Ari to discuss the role of empathy in design and how toys and play can help us to be more open and collaborative.

Hi Ilana, thanks for taking the time to chat. Could you start by telling us a little more about yourself and your background?

Thanks for having me! I’m what you would call a toy designer, turned social entrepreneur. I took my University thesis project, now known as the Empathy Toy, and used it to launch my startup Twenty One Toys which uses toys to teach what textbooks can’t — empathy, failure, and creative collaboration. It’s been 5 years and just through word of mouth, our toys are in over 1000 schools and offices in 45 countries.

Let’s talk a little more about that transition. How did you turn your student design project into an international business?

I studied industrial design at Carleton University and as part of your thesis year in that program, you get matched with a client to help solve one of their challenges. My client was the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Their challenge was to design a navigational aid for the visually impaired. I like to joke that what they expected me to design was a Blackberry with really big buttons, but instead, I ended up designing a toy that helped visually impaired students break down communication barriers with their sighted classmates.

I think that entering any project with a lens of humility and curiosity means entering it through a lens of empathic research and empathic observation. You need to be completely open to being surprised.

It’s well known that design actually starts with empathy, and that’s how I ended up designing the Empathy Toy. The second I got my assignment I went straight to the library and read about visual impairment for about a minute, and then I said, “This is crazy, I should get on the phone and talk to people who are living with it, as well as their friends and family.” After talking with more than 30 people whose lives were affected by visual impairment, either directly or through their friends, family, and loved ones, I discovered that there’s a huge social and emotional gap between the visually impaired community and the sighted community – especially when it came to elementary school students.

Through a lot of empathetic observation and empathic research, I discovered that there’s a training visually impaired individuals take called Orientation and Mobility, O&M for short. The foundations of O&M are, “Where am I? Where am I going, and how do I get there?” I thought to myself, “What if I made a game incorporating those three questions, but that children with visual impairment could play with their sighted friends and classmates?”

By the end of my thesis year, I had built a toy that did just that and that toy went on to become the Empathy Toy. What was the biggest surprise for me was that I would test it during the day with kids, but at night I would test it in my studio with my friends who were sighted adults. That’s when I discovered that the toy was inclusive, not exclusive, and an incredible tool that could teach communication and empathy to people of all ages and abilities.

What makes empathy so important in designing solutions that actually work for people?

The world, especially right now, is so complex. And technology is so complex. It’s incredibly arrogant to think that you can fix a problem using your product or your service, without any sense of humility or curiosity. With empathy, you ask, “What assumptions am I making when I’m trying to fix this problem?” I think that entering any project with a lens of humility and curiosity means entering it through a lens of empathic research and empathic observation. You need to be completely open to being surprised.

Working in a creative field, I think you’re just constantly balancing contradictions. And I think the most interesting contradiction of a really fantastic inventor, creator, or designer, is being incredibly humble and curious, but at the same time being insanely confident in your idea and believing that you’re on the right track. That your idea is worth pursuing.

What do you think it looks like to design something with empathy?

It’s easy to think of projects where empathy wasn’t used. For example, when non-profit organizations have gone into completely foreign communities saying, “This is what you need” and not have it actually solve the community’s problem. That’s an example of not leading with empathy, which essentially means coming in with a solution, not talking to anyone, and assuming that it’s going to work. The opposite is recognizing that it’s not about finding the right solution, it’s about finding the right problem. Leading with empathy means you may have the correct hunch, you may think you know what problem is, but you should be going in and questioning that assumption.

I think we’ve all seen projects like that, where someone tries to jump straight to the answer without taking a step back to actually figure out what the question was. What are some of the ways designers can avoid this?

Solutions can be really seductive, so it’s important to write down questions that prompt discussions. Have incredible facilitators on your team. Create safe environments for embedding empathy and failure into the process. We shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that there might be a failure or a problem. We should assume that we’re going to be making assumptions and that some things will work and some things won’t.

We used the Empathy Toy as part of Bridgeable Day

Why is it important to also allow for failure in the design process?

I think that failure, along with empathy and the ability to improvise are three skills that are central to the design process. Every time we talk about empathy or about understanding someone else’s perspective, it naturally goes into people’s vulnerabilities, which leads into a discussion around power dynamics and intention. When people say, “I felt judged in that moment,” or, “I felt like I was going to make a mistake in that moment,” it opens up discussions around people’s perceptions of failure and success. Currently, we run failure workshops with the Empathy Toy and we’re in the midst of getting ready to launch our next toy, the Failure Toy.

Why is play such a powerful tool in teaching all of these skills?

At the highest level of what Twenty One Toys does, it’s really about trying to bring back play. From the moment you’re born to the summer before grade one, play is considered a part of your learning and development. Then, for some reason, once you enter grade one play is not how you learn, it’s the opposite of learning. It’s a frivolous thing that happens at recess. When we enter the working world, we’re being asked to be creative and collaborative, and essentially, we’re being asked to use all the skills that we were being taught in kindergarten.

We need to realize that the mediums we use, like textbooks, are going to fall short of being able to teach skills like that. Which is why experiential, playful tools are vital.

That’s why at least part of our mission statement is that the toys we design need to be called toys. Just by existing, and being proudly displayed in offices, it gives that mission weight. It says, “This is something we need to take seriously. We need to play, and take these skills seriously.”

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