Empathy, Humanity, and Studying Context

AUTHOR: SAMBIT PATTNAIK | EDITOR: YUHUI CHEN (MSIM, Information School, University of Washington).

This writing was submitted as part of a writing assignment for the IMT 540 - Design Methods class taught by Batya Friedman. This post talks about "Empathic Design" in particular and discusses the views of different authors and suggests ways to incorporate the same into our daily design process. I feel, empathy is key to any kind of design because unless the designer steps into the shoes of the users, unless she feels the needs and emotions of the users, understands her inhibitions and constraints, she can't envision or implement a proper user experience. Below is the writing:

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, “Empathy” is defined as, “the imaginative projection subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it” which in simple words would mean the vicarious feeling that makes someone think and feel from other’s perspective. D. Leonard and J. Rayport in their article have clearly pointed out the importance of empathic design and the subtle differences that traditional methods like surveys and interviews might raise and how it could obfuscate the design process by introducing the designer’s own biases. I find it quite compelling in various ways, especially from a designer’s standpoint.

In a recent article published by the design firm IDEO named, “Empathy on the Edge”, K. Battarbee, J. Suri, and S. Howard, have identified various real world scenarios where designers actually blended themselves into the users’ context, went through their pain to identify issues and design solutions thereafter. There were cases where a designer got his chest hair waxed to empathize the wound-care patients and another where a group of designers administered a fake injection as part of month-long exercise designed to build empathy (IDEO, 2012). We can illicit conclusions out of these interactions which might be similar to what the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs once quoted, “A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.” (BusinessWeek, 1998). These interactions immensely help designers design new and innovative products based on the observations of users’ behavioral patterns because generally users don’t have a context or a previous experience to base their responses on. 

In most of the cases these very observations help designers reduce redundancies and improve existing products by leaps and bounds. The process should ideally follow the steps of observation, data capture and analysis, brainstorming for solutions and finally developing of prototypes. (D. Leonard and J. Rayport, 1997)

The basic idea behind Empathic Design is rooted from the very fact that people are driven by habit no matter how inconvenient it might get, they figure out workarounds and stay unaware of some of their daily surroundings and hence are unable to report and identify their needs at times. (D. Leonard and J. Rayport, 1997). This is the very reason why designers have to step into the user’s shoes, watch and observe her in her natural surroundings to figure out user needs and identify the grey areas of their own products. I came across a beautiful exercise performed by Joyce Thomas, Professor at UIUC to improve the lives of people with disabilities, where she aimed at taking her students beyond their “empathic horizon”. Based on one of her visually impaired students suffering from Retinitis pigmentosa, who had a very narrow field of vision, she asked her group of students to wear disability goggles to replicate the vision impairment. To their surprise, the students weren’t even able to properly perform their daily tasks, like getting past the glass doors of the building which which they were very familiar with, they spilled coffee and were unable to climb stairs with a limited vision. (TEDxUIUC, 2010). This exercise proves the fact that people do not pay attention to the environments they exist in but if they are observed performing their daily activities, designers could figure important behavioral traits and design better solutions. Also, the students of this exercise as designers would be able to properly understand the needs of the people with this disability and design creative solutions that are relevant and effective. 

The process of observing the users in their own context (familiar environment), commonly termed as “Contextual User Research” must be well organized and the results must have to be well segregated and grouped in order of relevancy to formulate the final design solutions (K. Holtzblatt and H. Beyer, 1993). 

But the whole idea of the empathic design and contextual research incites a few ethical questions in my mind. Walking along the lines of the researchers and designers inclined towards observing users in their natural environment, daily routines and confusions and turmoil might in some cases raise ethical concerns over privacy and the unwillingness of the user to actually share the observed information. There have been issues raised where Microsoft tried to collect data about the installed programs in a user’s computer using a network application for developmental purposes but was later discontinued as it was termed as a breach of privacy. (D. Leonard and J. Rayport, 1997). Even though unaware users provide a treasure of valuable information which might be central to a design process but many situations might need an agreed consent and a line needs to be drawn to avoid issues going overboard.


Leonard, D., & Rayport, J. F. (1997). Spark innovation through emphatic[sic] design. Harvard Business Review, 75(6), 102-113.

Beyer, H. & K. Holtzblatt (1998). Contextual design: Defining customer-centered systems. New York: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Battarbee, K., Suri, J., & Gibbs, S. (2010). Empathy on the Edge. Retrieved January 17, 2016, from https://www.ideo.com/images/uploads/news/pdfs/Empathy_on_the_Edge.pdf 

Thomas, J. (n.d.). TEDxUIUC - Joyce Thomas - Empathic Design. Retrieved January 17, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0w3ItNVl2E