MDes Research

TOPIC: EMPATHY IN DESIGN THINKING

For my masters thesis, I explored the the role of empathy in design thinking by looking to great thinkers from the 20th century, like Carl Rogers (client-centered therapy), John Dewey (education and experience), and Stanislavski (method acting). I designed a course about empathy and its relationship to human-centered design. I believe that empathy can be employed during all phases of the design process to better understand the needs of a user’s interactions and experiences with products and services.

THESIS ESSAY ABSTRACT
Master of Design in communication planning and information design
Carnegie Mellon University
2003

In human-centered design, there exists a problem in translating information from design research into design concepts so that the needs of users are accurately integrated into the final product. If designers never fully understand the experience of the users for whom they are designing, then products will never match user needs. A more fundamental look at empathy is needed.

To explore the concept of empathy, theoretical literature from Carl Rogers, John Dewey and Stanislavski was reviewed. Carl Rogers, a client-centered therapist, emphasizes the importance of establishing congruency and unconditional positive regard, being accurately empathic, sensing the experience of another “as if” it were your own, and really listening to the client’s point of view before the experience can be communicated and correctly summarized. John Dewey, known for his philosophies on education and experience, articulates the process of formulating experience, which requires one to step out of his/her frame of reference, view the experience as another, consider the points of contact that the experience has with another life, and then shape it into a meaningful form. Stanislavski, famous for bringing the Method to acting, regards performance as a “living dialogue,” which changes from one performance to the next, when emotion and intelligence unite with the experience of all participating members.

A synthesized model of empathy offers a solution to the translation problem in design. By stepping outside of the self, really listening to the experience of another, finding points of contact, employing the imagination to create plausible fantasies, and anticipating the consequence of action, designers and design teams can practice a more empathic approach to design.

Additional research involved interviews with design professionals and a review of curricula at top design schools, which revealed a lack of material to educate designers on the topic of empathy as it relates to design. A course about empathy and its relationship to human-centered design was developed to address this need.

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