I remember the day as if it was yesterday.  In 2004, I was a Technical Specialist for a large downtown law firm.  One of my core responsibilities was the delivery of one to one technical training (on Microsoft 1998) to lawyers.  I remember standing in a senior partner’s office showing him how to use automatic paragraph numbering.  He looked up at me and said, “When you try to teach me something new, do you know what is important to me?”  I can remember thinking; I have no idea and I don’t want to look silly in front of him.  He smiled and said, “I want to always know how to complete a task using the least number of keystrokes.  Every keystroke on the computer takes time.  Time is what I bill to my clients.   I want to bill them the least amount of time when it comes to revising documents.  My job is to research information and find ways of helping them.  My job is not to revise documents.”  That interaction with the senior partner changed my life forever as I got a clear picture of what I needed to consider when developing learning programs for lawyers.  I understood his situation, his desire and needs as a professional and as a person.  In retrospect – was he giving me information so that I could incorporate empathetic design?

In the 1990s and early 2000s the only computer-based learning I facilitated was in a classroom or on a one to one basis.  As the instructor and designer, I saw my students and I knew if or when they were engaged or disinterested.  It was easy to focus on them, their life experiences, their moods and emotions and because I witnessed this emotion (Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio & Koskinen, 2016), I had the opportunity to reiterate the program I was teaching to them.  Sometimes, ‘on the fly’ I would read their faces or listen to their stories and change the program to meet their needs. When I understand our clients/users, I have the ability to design with empathy.  If I do not know or understand my clients, I develop programs that may not be relevant to them or their needs.  In 2004, I could apply empathetic design in the moment, however, in 2020 when I design learning for a digital environment I have to incorporate empathetic design into the design process.

In 2020 the focus is on creating learning in a digital environment and therefore, I do not necessarily see my users and interact with them the same way I did in 2004.  For this reason, it is important to consider empathetic design when I create  programs. Not only does empathetic design involve being curious about what it is like to be someone else and walk in someone else’s shoes (Suri, as cited in Mattelmäki, et. al. 2016) but also it involves understanding someone else and appreciating their current life or circumstances.  When I design learning with empathy I am connecting to the participant, their needs, desires and most importantly I am creating learning that applies to their life and their values.  I interpret this as becoming ‘one’ with my participants. As an instructional designer, does the ability to become ‘one’ with our participants ever become second nature?


Mattelmäki, T., Vaajakallio, K., & Koskinen, I. (2014). What Happened to Empathic Design? Design Issues, 30(1), 67–77. https://doi-org.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/10.1162/DESI_a_00249