Compassion Isn’t Coddling

People often mistake compassion for “being nice,” but it’s not.

The point of compassion isn’t to soften bad news or stressful situations with niceties. It’s to come from a place of kindness and understanding, rather than a place of judgment. It’s to tell the truth in such a way that you’re allowing others to tell their truths, too.

Design for Real Life

Real life is complicated. It’s full of joy and excitement, sure, but also stress, anxiety, fear, shame, and crisis. We might experience harassment or abuse, lose a loved one, become chronically ill, get into an accident, have a financial emergency, or simply be vulnerable for not fitting into society’s expectations.

None of these circumstances is ideal, but all of them are part of life-and, odds are, your site or product has plenty of users in these moments, whether you’ve ever thought about them or not.

Our industry tends to call these edge cases-things that affect an insignificant number of users. But the term itself is telling, as information designer and programmer Evan Hensleigh puts it: “Edge cases define the boundaries of who and what you care about” ( They demarcate the border between the people you’re willing to help and the ones you’re comfortable marginalizing.

Design for Real Life

That’s why we’ve chosen to look at these not as edge cases, but as stress cases: the moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.

It’s a test we haven’t passed yet. When faced with users in distress or crisis, too many of the experiences we build fall apart in ways large and small.

Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

Design for Real Life

Compassion and acceptance are practical and effective magic. They remedy a lot of problems and contribute to psychological safety. Acceptance matters. “A big part of our susceptibility to issues like anxiety has to do with how we were slowly socialized, either implicitly or explicitly, to believe that an autistic lifestyle is something that is defective and therefore needs fixing. A recent Independent article sums up the strong link between lack of autism acceptance and the development of mental health disorders in autistic people: Research shows that lack of acceptance externally from others and internally from the self significantly predicts depression and anxiety in young adults with autism. ” “We also reject the equation that accepting autism and disability means giving up. Research consistently shows that autism acceptance leads to better mental health for parents as well as autistic people themselves. Evidence is mounting that acceptance and accommodation provide a more reliable path to increased capability and independence than fighting autism or disability does. Acceptance isn’t a cure, but it does facilitate recognition and support of abilities that often go unrecognized and under-valued. We are better off when not only our disabilities, but our real abilities, are recognized.”

The lesson I learned from all of this is that the way we treat the people that society had deemed insane -in a treatment that will last most likely for a lifetime- is fundamental to their recovery. As you can see, in this account there is not a single psychological technique applied, just a little common sense, empathy and compassion. I would have loved to immediately start applying the treatments of the school where I was trained, meeting the problems of psychosis and facing them with the tools I learned at university. Yes, I would have loved to, because I love my profession. But first I had to just be a human being.

How to Deal with Madness? | Jorge Silva on Patreon

“Compassion is not coddling.”  Disabled and neurodivergent people are always edge cases, and edge cases are stress cases. The logistics of disability and cognitive difference in an ableist and inaccessible world are exhausting, often impossible. Part of compassion is recognizing the structural realities of marginalized people and rejecting narratives of resentment. Design is tested at the edges. “No one knows best the motion of the ocean than the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream.” “By focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best.” “When we build things – we must think of the things our life doesn’t necessitate. Because someone’s life does.” “That’s why we’ve chosen to look at these not as edge cases, but as stress cases: the moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.” “Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.” ‘People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable–people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.”  … Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”–a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.

Compassion is more than being nice. It’s accepting people as they come—in all their pain, with all their challenges—and not just feeling empathy toward them, but doing something with that empathy. It’s recognizing that users facing stress and crisis need more than our sympathy. They need our help.

Design for Real Life

Compassion is an essential tech skill that needs to be taught as an integral part of tech education.

Get Ready for the Future – JavaScript Scene – Medium

We can’t always predict who will use our products, or what emotional state they’ll be in when they do. But we have the power—and the responsibility—to build compassion into every aspect of our products, and to advocate for experiences that support more of our users, more of the time.

Delight 2016: Sara Wachter Boettcher — Design for Real Life – YouTube

The products we create can make someone’s day—or leave them feeling alienated, marginalized, hurt, or angry. It’s all depends on whether we design for real life: for people with complex emotions, stressed-out scenarios, or simply identities that are different from our own.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher – Design for Real Life (video)

Technology companies call these people edge cases, because they live at the margins. They are, by definition, the marginalized.

Design’s Lost Generation – Mike Monteiro – Medium

“Edge case” is, to be frank, a phrase that should be banned from all developer conversations (and then tattooed onto the forehead of anyone who continues to use it).

When we say “Edge Case” we mean “Stress Case”. In their book, Design for Real LifeEric Meyer & Sara Wachter-Boettcher point out that what we glibly call an “edge case” is normally an enormously stressful event for a user.

It often accompanies high emotions, stress, physical problems, financial problems, etc. When we discount and dismiss the “edge case”, we’re actually saying “I don’t care about that particular user’s stressful situation”.

Dear Developer, The Web Isn’t About You |

When the premise is spelled out so bluntly, it sounds ridiculous. But that summary captures a mindset that is widely accepted and applied. I call it BGUTI (rhymes with duty), which is the acronym of Better Get Used To It. It brings to mind a Monty Python sketch that featured “getting hit on the head” lessons. When the student recoils and cries out from the pain, the instructor says, “No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go, ‘Waaah!’ Try it again”—and gives him another smack. Presumably this is extremely useful training . . . for future experiences of getting hit on the head.

But the key point is this: From a developmental perspective, BGUTI is flat-out wrong. People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. On the contrary, what best prepares children to deal with the challenges of the real world is to experience success and joy, to feel supported and respected, to receive loving guidance and unconditional care and the chance to have some say about what happens to them. This is the foundation that allows one to see what’s wrong with unsympathetic people and coercive institutions, to realize that grades or punishment or competition is not a necessary part of life, and to imagine alternatives. Most of all, positive emotional experiences give kids the confidence and psychological stability to weather the bad stuff. That’s what all the research about effective parenting (pp. 40–41) teaches us: Loved, empowered kids are in the best position to deal constructively with unloving, disempowering circumstances.

Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 92). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

That’s why we like to think of compassion as a spirit of generosity: assuming that our users have it tough, and being not only willing but happy to let go of our own desires to make things easier for them.

Design for Real Life