One of my major clients some time ago was Motherwear — maker of clothes that make it easier for mothers to nurse discretely. I was practically their IT manager, and did much of their system design and programming.

This story concerns a time when they were beginning to utilize the web, and needed a way for customers to un-subscribe to the email list. I implemented a system where customers or prospects could send email to a particular address (e.g. unsubscribe@Motherwear.com), and that would cause the desired result.

However, it wouldn’t work if the mother was subscribed at her home address, and sent the message from a work email. All sorts of other things could result in no match. So I needed to print a report listing as much data as possible about the email received at the unsubscribe address. This would help a staff member manually match up each unsubscribe request with the proper entry in the database. And although most of the data was in various email headers, I assumed that I’d also print out any text the mother wrote.

The new junior staff person at Motherwear who was assigned to this task tried to talk me out of including any message the mother might have sent. “She should know that she’s writing to a robot that doesn’t understand”, this staffer told me. “It’s just an automated process, and she has no business using that medium to write tho us”, she added.

I persisted. And, as a good friend of Motherwear’s owners, I felt comfortable proceeding on my own. I didn’t know what these women would have to say, but felt it was only right to listen to their message. If a woman had bothered to write something, then she didn’t regard the recipient as a robot, and that is what mattered.

So I did print out all those messages, and the vast majority of them told the same story — “I just lost my baby, so please stop sending me information about nursing.”. Of course, Motherwear immediately set up a process by which a personal note was sent to each mother who shared this story. Technology could have made it easy to hide from the social reality. But in this case, technology gave us a way to communicate in a compassionate way to a set of people who were obviously in pain.

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