Authours: Jon Hoss & Naseer Roopani
Edited by Christine Keene
Designers may have difficulty empathizing with a user who has different abilities (e.g., a physical or mental impairment) or who lives in a very different personal or social situation. This makes it hard to design empathically without resorting to stereotyping or unintentional ego-design.
Empathy tools are physical objects (such as a device that simulates an impairment) or cognitive or social techniques (such as a distracting task that simulates a mental impairment) that allow designers to get a sense of what a user experiences and feels, either in his or her day-to-day life or in the context of using a product or experience being designed.
The discussion about empathic design and methods emerged in the late 1990s. Ulay Dandavate, Elizabeth Sanders and Susan Stuart (1996) regarded an expanding of the focus of user-centered design important, as well as inclusion of emotions alongside rational considerations. Empathy is needed to understand emotions. In 1997, Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport published an article that marketed empathic design as an inspiration for innovation.
Empathy tools are most valuable in the early phase of research, when the designer is trying to better understand the target user’s needs and context, and in the later prototyping stages, when a product or service needs to be tested to ensure that it meets the needs of users with various abilities.
Empathy tools can be very simple, quick and inexpensive to use, so they should be used in any situation where the researcher has questions about a user’s experience.
Empathic tools are intended to provide those involved in the innovation process with a feeling and deeper understanding, rather than information or knowledge. They should be used in conjunction with other research and design methods. Their goal is to allow the designer to develop an informed intuition that will influence further research and design.
Empathy tools are informal, and there is no fixed process for using them.
1) Domain – Understand the specific situation or impairment that you are trying to simulate. This will usually involve some user research to understand its nature. It is important to be specific about both the type and severity of the situation or impairment. If you’re simulating loss of visual acuity, for example, there are hundreds of different conditions that could be simulated—from colour blindness to myopia to cataracts to full loss of sight—and since each of these would affect users differently, they may need to be tested separately in a design situation.
2) Materials – Obtain or invent the tool that will be used to simulate the user situation or impairment. For common impairment (such as various type of vision loss), simulators can be obtained from specialty manufacturers. However, designers may find it easier to construct their own specialized empathy tool. To simulate a mobility restriction, for example, designers could use anything from a tape or rope used to restrict part of the body to a high-fidelity motion-restricting garment.
3) Considerations – Determine the level of fidelity needed in the simulation. Does the designer need to feel exactly what a user would, or would a rough approximation suffice? This will have a major impact on the cost and complexity of the process.
Another factor to consider is adaptation. Most users will be accustomed to their situation or impairment, so to increase the fidelity of the simulation, the designer may want to spend time getting used to a simulated impairment before trying to use a product.
To simulate a mental impairment or condition, simple cognitive techniques may be used if the mental condition is impossible or dangerous to replicate. For example, to simulate the effects of intoxication in a safe way, a designer may engage in a distracting mental task—like counting backwards from 100 in steps of seven—while trying to use a product.
The researcher’s foreknowledge of the product being tested must also be considered. In reality, for example, a blind user will never have seen a product before trying to use it. But the product’s researcher has seen it, even if he or she puts on a blindfold, and this foreknowledge will influence the testing process. If a high-fidelity simulation is desired, the designer may want to bring in volunteers to participate in the simulation who have never seen the product before.
4) Simulation – Run the simulation. The length of the simulation will vary depending on the length of time needed to experience the product or service being designed, the desired level of fidelity, etc. If the empathy tool involves a sensory or motor restriction, great care should be taken to avoid injury. It is advisable to have an observer present for safety reasons.
5) Record – Devise a method for documenting the feelings experienced during the simulation. Common techniques include having an observer take notes and ask the experimenter about the experience, or videotaping the simulation to capture specific moments of difficulty.
A period of reflection and note-taking after the simulation is complete is highly advisable. Empathic documentary tools, such as persona narratives or empathy maps, are useful for capturing one’s thoughts in a structured way.
6) Risks and limitations
- Users who have a real disability or special circumstance have usually adapted to their situation; designers do not have this adaptation during a special need unless they have spent considerable time simulating the user’s situation.
- Designers should avoid stereotyping users when using empathy tools. A particular disability, for example, can have many variations or levels of severity.
- From an empathic perspective, designers must remember that although they have the freedom to abandon a simulated impairment at any time, real users do not.
- Physical risks can arise from a physical simulation (e.g., walking into a wall if blindfolded).
- It is important to remember that empathy tools are not an end in themselves. Their purpose is to help develop an informed intuition that will guide the designer through the rest of his or her work. Therefore, after using an empathy tool, the designer should carry on with research and design.
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