Empathic Design Research: Moving Towards a New Mode of Industrial Design Education

By Deana McDonagh, Joyce Thomas and Megan Strickfaden.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

With shifting demographics and emerging populations that do not fit the universal ideal, designers more than ever need to be receptive and responsive to heterogeneity and changing needs of users. In order to move towards design processes and outcomes that better address the needs of diversity it is speculated here that designers need to engage with users in a more intimate way. That is, design-specific capital typically involves managing user needs abstractly (at a distance) and to change this approach designers need to confront users directly during designing. This confrontation directly exposes designers to users, supports empathy, and results in understanding a fuller range of human needs. This work recognizes that it is not effective or appropriate to rely on educational training and personal experience of sole designers. User-experts (laypeople outside of design having specific experiences inherent to, e.g., age or disability) offer a rich resource relative to their insights, expectations, and aspirations that are otherwise often overlooked.
This work details two student projects, one in the UK and one in North America. The first project reveals insights into how students design products without users present and how they are part of the designing process. The second project focuses on developing empathy between designer and users to support design outcomes that amplify use and better meet user needs. By discussing different approaches to design teaching—one involving users in the abstract (traditional) and the other by integrating students with physical disabilities as members of the design studio (empathic design research strategy)—this work supports moving towards a new mode of industrial design education. The outcomes of this paper provide insights into the different skill sets developed by engaging in each approach and how empathic ways of designing enhance design processes and contribute to design outcomes. It also suggests how using an alternate approach in studio teaching supports a more people-centered design process and has the potential to re-script the design-specific capital of students.

Keywords: Disability, Design-specific Capital, Empathy, People-centered Design, User-experts

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp.301-314. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.374MB).

Dr. Deana McDonagh

Associate Professor in Industrial Design, College of Fine and Applied Arts, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA

Deana McDonagh, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Industrial Design in the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and faculty of the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology. Prior to joining the University of Illinois she was a Reader in User-Centred Design at Loughborough University in the UK. She is an Empathic Design Research Strategist who focuses on enhancing quality of life for all through more intuitive and meaningful products, leading to emotional sustainability. Her research concentrates on emotional user-product relationships and how empathy can bring the designer closer to users’ authentic needs.

Prof. Joyce Thomas

Visiting Lecturer in Industrial Design, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA

Joyce Thomas, MFA, IDSA is an innovator and educator with a passion for design. As a professional industrial designer, she has worked across interdisciplinary boundaries and integrated marketing, engineering, and consumer needs into creative products for over 30 years. Joyce has invented products that have been awarded more than 50 US and international patents. She has employed the consumer as an active participant in the designing process, utilizing user-centered design, design ethnography, and empathic design research methods. Thomas is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Industrial Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where she teaches user oriented collaborative design, studio and technology courses. Her research interests include Design and Disability and Design for Disaster Preparedness and Recovery.

Dr. Megan Strickfaden

Assistant Professor, Department of Human Ecology, Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Alberta, Alberta, Canada

Megan Strickfaden, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in material culture and design studies in the department of Human Ecology, Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences (ALES) at the University of Alberta (Canada). She studied anthropology, people-centered design, and sustainability at the University of Alberta (Canada). She followed this by working for 12 years as a design engineer with various design firms. Strickfaden obtained her PhD in Humanities & Social Sciences from Napier University (UK) with a study investigating potential sociocultural influences on the design process and the cultural milieu of design teaching environments. As a post-doctoral researcher she was engaged with two projects: the Sociocultural Capital of Design Educators at Grant MacEwan College (Canada) and Architectural Design In Dialogue with dis-Ability (AIDA) at K.U.Leuven. Strickfaden’s current research continues to investigate sociocultural complexities within educational and professional design environments including designing with and for people with disabilities.


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