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What designers need to know about Empathy in Design!

For designers, empathy is one of the most important concepts we need to learn. Most designers

have heard that empathy is a core design competency, but we haven't necessarily inquired

about why it's so important.

I'm a graduate student in California College of the Arts' Master of Interaction Design (MDes)

program, and a few weeks ago my thinking on empathy was challenged in the IxD Foundations

course. As part of an an assignment called "Studio Leadership," a classmate and I were

charged with designing and presenting an hour-long teaching session. As student leaders, we

had to facilitate learning an interaction concept and applying one studio principle to create an

original activity.

Since we are learning about empathy in all of our classes we needed to find a new angle for this

subject. We looked everywhere and considered everything, and reviewed the books and articles

that we'd read about empathy. My first exposure to empathy in a design education setting was

in our Communication by Design class reading Connecting Across Differences by Jane Marantz

Connor and Dian Killian. The authors introduce their discussion of empathy with a quote from

Jeremy Rifkin, "Much of our daily..." Rifkins words resonated with me, and assured me that I

was very familiar with empathy, even though I hadn't defined it as a professional competency.

I've always been a very empathic person, without naming it or associating it with a set of


After reading about empathy in Connecting Across Differences, I realized that not

everyone finds it easy to be empathetic, and it can be very hard for people to walk in others

shoes. From this awareness, my classmate and I developed our design teaching opportunity.

We went looking for more discussion on empathy, and we referred back to another reading from

our Communication by Design class, "Empathy on the Edge" by Katja ... Reading this article

was the first time I experienced the power of empathy as it's exercised in design. One example

of empathy presented in the article was a project that the design agency IDEO had with a

pharmaceutical company. The objective of the project was to ensure that the company was

being empathic around the experience of using an injectable therapy they'd designed. IDEO

implemented a month long immersive experience for 35 employees of the pharmaceutical

company to guide them in understanding the patients' experience and pain points, from product

packaging, to instructions, and patient support. This was a vivid example of how empathy can

be applied to even the smallest details in a design process.

We gathered our readings and learnings and applied them to designing an exercise that

involved iteratively practicing empathy. We had classmates use play-doh to design a chair

however they liked. We then provided 3 different personas and asked them to redesign their

chairs based on the needs of the personas. Finally, we asked them to pair up and redesign their

chairs based on their partner's needs and goals.

So by putting them through this experience we hoped to provide them with a better

understanding of empathy and its effects in design. With second and third activities we saw

how everyone really tried to put them selves in their subjects shoes and make sure what they

are designing is really suitable for them.We asked them to explain their decisions and everything they talked about was showing how they felt empathetic to towards their users.

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