Empathy and User-Centered Design: Going Method

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This class project is one of my favorites; one that I wished I did back in grad school. But back then, all we got was this one anecdote which was always trotted out when a professor wanted to talk about user studies: an ethnographer who donned the elderly equivalent of a fat suit and lived in the skin of an older person to learn what everyday life was like for the elderly.  While the name of the ethnographer escapes me now, the story has always stuck with me.  I loved the idea of a design version of method acting and it served as the inspiration for this assignment.

As a prelude to learning about User Observation, we start off with talking about empathy.  It can be incredibly difficult sometimes to divorce yourself from the product you are designing, especially if the product is never meant to be consumed by the likes of you.  It is all too easy to slide back into human nature and forget that not everyone has the same experiences as you.  In this way, we can unintentially make assumptions, overlook challenges or not consider other critical information.  And this is where empathy can become an exceptionally valuable skill.

To learn more about empathy, I divided the class into several teams and each team adopted a new persona: one team had a manual wheelchair; another team a double stroller; another wore blurred glasses and earplugs and restricted their joint movement etc.  Each team then had a list of tasks to complete that took them around Vancouver — like getting on the Skytrain, using an ATM, finding specific products on sale at the grocery store, and carrying heavy goods and umbrellas. The goal was not really to learn about what it would be like to live as these personas but to understand how  many common, routine things are perceived very differently once you change the circumstances.

I tagged along with Team Wheelchair in the beginning.  Truly, it was quite embarassing to realize how poorly designed some things are in this city.  Take the Skytrain — the most efficient way of getting around this city during rush hour.  It is literally impossible to get from the platform onto the train due to a slightly raised lip (perhaps 1cm at the most) between the two.  One student almost flipped over the wheelchair in his attempt.  (Ahh…that is why I’ve never seen a manual wheelchair on the Skytrain).  The elevator access was abyssmal as well.  Getting to the train from the stadium at Stadium/Chinatown was an exercise in frustration as numerous elevators were down, requiring a laborious extra two block trek uphill to get to a functional elevator.  An accessible bathroom at Pacific Centre, a large downtown mall, was labelled as accessible but had a push door.  How can someone in a wheelchair push in a heavy door?  We tried, and couldn’t. And did you know that a simple manhole cover can throw off your whole rhythm, sending you straight for the curb if you don’t watch for every aberration in the sidewalk?


As for Team Twins, I won’t belabor the inadequacies of strollers and other infant accoutrements, which I’m sure are well-documented already but just note that three Masters students in Design spent over 10 minutes attempting to unfold a Safety 1st double stroller and ultimately gave up.  Industrial designers and manufacturers, I beg of you to spend some time studying parents before going to the drawing board.

I also followed Team Elderly who were charged with the mission of finding a few sale items (laundry detergent, cat litter) featured in a flyer at Canadian Tire, one of those ubiquitous big box retailers here in the Great White North.  Our “elderly” vision-impaired student struggled with finding the correct aisle, finding herself in one that was labelled “All Purpose Cleaning” but in actuality only automobile cleaning products.  With the blurred glasses, one row of cleaning products looked much like the other and she spent many minutes finding the correct aisle.  She then had to crouch an inch or two away from each miniscule shelving label to see the product name and most importantly, the price. 


Surprisingly, this retailer apparently does not believe in common visual merchandising techniques like printing large bold signs for all sale products.  We spent at least 10 minutes in the detergent aisle waiting for her to locate the product — and not a single employee spotted during this time.   The 20/20 vision members of the group were also unable to find the product either! (finally a small shelf label was found but no product remained).  And the flyer’s photo of “Purina Maxx” cat litter did not look like the product on the shelf, making it very difficult to locate the correct brand and product.  In Vancouver, carts are often hard to find or locked down (releasable with a $1 coin) due to theft, so baskets are much more commonplace.  Carrying one weighted down with heavy goods is bad enough when you’re able-bodied, but with iffy joints it becomes downright unnpleasant.[wpvideo DzheQD68]

Have you tried opening a twist cap when your hand has been injured?  In this case, the student’s joints were taped to simulate arthritis and we watched with bated breath, watching the painful process of her twisting it open against her body and hoping the Coke did not sully her white sweater.

All in all, an enlightening use of 2 hours.  Next up: taking our honed skills in empathy and applying them to user observation.

(A sidenote: I got woefully behind on posts about my class, but summer session just kicked off and luckily, I’m able to pick up where I left off!)


Interested in the User Experience course I’m teaching? Here are more posts:

>The First Class

>The Second Class

>The Third Class

>The Fourth Class

>The Fifth Class

>The Sixth Class

>The Seventh Class

>The Eighth Class: Gamification prototype, Mobile prototype, Scrapbook prototypeKiosk prototype.

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