Empathic design in academic libraries: asking hard questions

[Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash]

In this blog post, I would like to reflect on the empathic design and its contribution to the innovation process in digital learning environments, specifically in academic libraries.

While previously I had been closely familiar with the needs assessment process in the academic libraries, which had been a part of the course design process for me, I have not been aware of empathic design principles or its application in the course development to foster innovation and change. Empathic design is focused, according to Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio, and Koskinen (2014) in “how people make sense of emotions, talk about them, and share them” (p. 68), which then translate to design being an “interpretive exercise” (p. 68).

In order to succeed in the empathic design, a designer has to be able to know their users, relate to them on the level of their real-life needs, and provide meaningful solutions to their problem. In the context of academic libraries, where librarians provide on-going support during the instruction, empathic design plays a crucial role, since making the library instruction relevant for students’ particular context and needs as well as making it easy to understand for students can determine their success in their future studies.

As librarians, we design the instruction based on what we think students need to know, not necessarily looking at the students’ particular context. Would teaching Boolean operators be useful when a student is used to using natural language processing to search for information? Will that deem library completely irrelevant for students if we are not able to meet them where they are? Will their feeling of discomfort or unease make them not use the library in the future, because this is simply is not how they do their research?

What was your experience?


Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio, & Koskinen. (2014). What happened to empathic design? Design Issues30(1), 67-77. doi:10.1162/DESI_a_00249.



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