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

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