Empathic Design: Understanding the User/Learner

Figure 1. Designers’ perspectives likely differ from users’ perspectives.

An empathic design approach is utilized to gain insight from users of a product, organization, service, or system to better understand users’ wants, needs, and feelings.  It allows designers to identify or prevent design problems and determine solutions which best accommodate users’ constraints and draw on their capabilities.

As a teacher, I have used empathic design without realizing it.  I often ask or observe my students in order to gain empathy and insight into their feelings about my classroom, lessons and courses, and adjust the design as a result.  For example, upon observing my students, I have made changes in the classroom, including desk arrangement and lighting.  I have also used the empathic process to adjust how I design group work.

Despite using the empathic process as a teacher, I question its effectiveness for designers.  Teachers typically spend several hours a week for several months with their students.  Can designers connect with a sample of users long enough and deeply enough to sufficiently understand their wants, needs and emotions?

Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio, and Koskinen (2014) state that empathic design is growing as it explores new design challenges and research questions (p. 77).  It appears to be beneficial in a variety of disciplines (Giang, 2016; Weed, 2019).  However, user empathy must be balanced with a designer’s skills and knowledge to observe the whole picture and provide the best solution.  As a learner, teacher or designer in education, do you feel empathic design is an effective process?


Giang, V. (2016, August 10). How Ford uses an ‘empathy belly’ to improve its employees’ soft skills. Retrieved from https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/hr/2016/how-ford-uses-an-empathy-belly-to-improve-its-employees-soft-skills

Mattelmäki, T., Vaajakallio, K., & Koskinen, I. (2014). What happened to empathic design? Design Issues, 30(1), 67-77.

Weed, J. (2019, April 22). More benches, special goggles: Taking steps to assist older travelers. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/business/elder-travel-airports-hotels.html

Motivation and Learning

Image source, with permission: Bucella, 2008, Cartoon Stock 

Merrill’s (2002) ‘first principles of instruction’ include four phases (activation, demonstration, application, and integration) occurring in the context of real-world tasks or problems.  As both a teacher and learner myself, I found it interesting that Merrill does not include learner motivation as a first principle and, in fact, argues that “the real motivation for learners is learning” (p. 50).  Is motivation really an outcome of learning, as Merrill posits, or is motivation needed for learning to occur?

Motivation might be a learning outcome if Merrill’s principles could be customized for each and every student, for example, if instruction could start from exactly the point of what each student already knows, and if the task or problem could be customized to the student’s particular learning needs.  This is rarely feasible in today’s learning environments, however.  A teacher often has many students and a finite amount of time to cover pre-determined learning objectives.  Also, I believe the subject matter itself must initially be motivating to the learner.  If one does not have an interest in playing the piano, becoming a medical doctor, or quantum mechanics, I am unsure that any attempt to follow Merrill’s principles of instruction would motivate the student to invest the time and energy to learn.  Learning appears to require learner motivation, either from internal factors such as curiosity of the subject, or external factors such as desiring a passing grade or promotion (Halamish, Madmon, & Moed, 2019).  Considering your own experiences as an educator or learner, is motivation an outcome or a cause of learning?


Halamish V, Madmon I, & Moed A. (2019). Motivation to learn: The long-term mnemonic benefit of curiosity in intentional learning. Experimental Psychology, 66(5), 319-330. doi:10.1027/1618-3169/a000455

Merrill, M D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 42-59.