Empathic design research: Moving towards a new mode of industrial design education

Deana McDonagh, Joyce K Thomas, Megan Strickfaden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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, designspecific 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)301-313
Number of pages13
JournalDesign Principles and Practices
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2011


  • Design-specific capital
  • Disability
  • Empathy
  • People-centered design
  • User-experts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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