13/08/2013 08:51 BST | Updated 09/10/2013 06:12 BST

Coca-Cola, Colostomy Bags and Cross-Dressing: Tips for Building Rapid Empathy

"How many carbohydrates in a can of Coke?" someone asks.

"Depends whether it's Diet Coke, regular Coke, or Coke Zero" another responds.

Apart from that brief outburst, the faces of the participants in our Human-Centred Design (HCD) workshop are crinkled with concentration as they calculate the number of carbs they consumed in their last meal. They're not trying the newest low-carb diet, but putting themselves in the shoes of someone with diabetes--feeling, first-hand, what it's like to count their blood glucose levels to ensure they adjust their insulin intake correctly.

That walk-a-mile-immersion exercise is just one example of the methods we use to build rapid empathy in which we (as researchers and designers) help our audience (students, clients) to quickly understand the challenges that people face with a product, service, or process. Interestingly, the rapid bit is where the audience actually makes a connection, experiencing empathy for others. As humans, we're wired to feel empathy, so all we need to do is tap into that innate capacity.

The not so-rapid part of rapid-empathy is creating a compelling way to quickly communicate the plight of the participants to our audience. Most of the difficulty is because many of the best empathy-building methods are contextually-based, those in which we enter the world of the people we're designing for. And as much as we'd like to bring designers, researchers, engineers and our clients' teams to the nursing home in Atlanta, the nightclub in Moscow, or the car of the 82-year old grandfather in Glasgow, the reality is, it's not always possible.

So the challenge is, how do we find compelling ways to quickly communicate the plight of our participants?

Frames of Reference

We all have our frame of reference - our beliefs about how the world works. In Cognitive Psychology, this frame of reference is called a "schema." Schemas help us make sense of the world by providing a way to organise current knowledge as well as a framework for understanding new situations.

We construct schemas through repeated experience with a situation. For instance, if you've gone to a restaurant many times, you have a schema for what to expect (go in, get table, look at menu, order food, eat food, pay bill, leave). Schemas influence not only how we perceive information, but also what information we choose to attend to and absorb or reject. We're more likely to notice and remember things that fit into an existing schema and reject things that don't because integrating a contradictory piece of information into an existing schema requires more cognitive effort.

A big part of building empathy is being able to understand another person's frame of reference by linking it to our own. We want to avoid the outright rejection of something that doesn't fit with an existing schema because that means our audience (the people we'll be immersing in the empathy-building exercises) will struggle to empathise with the participants (the people they're designing for). So, before the empathy-building comes the assumption checking. First, we check our assumptions about our audience: What is their likely frame of reference? Will they struggle to understand the participants' frame of reference? Then we decide which kind of preparatory exercises are needed to help them activate and absorb new frames of reference, before using different tools (narratives, voyeurism, simulation) to help them build empathy.

Rapid-Empathy Methods: Narratives, Voyeurism, and Simulations

Narratives are, quite simply, stories. Our brains are wired to understand and respond to stories, especially those that engage our emotions. Narratives can take many forms, from "found" narratives (where people tell stories without any direction from us), to ones commissioned specifically for a project.

When you're selecting narratives consider stories that:

• Show the plight of people. As Jeremy Rifkin explains in an RSA talk on the evolution of empathy, there is no empathy in utopia. If there are no problems, there is no need to identify with the plight of others

• Activate existing schemas that enable the audience to have enough detail that they can predict how the person would think/feel/behave in certain (future) situations

• Engage the emotions. Photography and video are powerful communication tools. Even better if the narratives are accompanied by faces - our brains are specially wired to respond to them, in fact we unconsciously mimic the emotional expressions we see on other's faces.

• If there are many narratives to communicate, use an analysis method (like Personas) that abstracts the common patterns whilst still maintaining the human (emotional) content.


One possible downside of narratives is that the audience may not believe the stories. This is where the adage, "seeing is believing" comes in to play. Voyeurism, or in-context observation as it is professionally called, is especially important if you're trying to understand what people actually do (vs. what they say they do) and how the natural environmental affects their behaviour. As with using narratives to build empathy, the observation activity itself doesn't need to be time-intensive. However, we do need to plan very carefully where and when the observation happens, and give guidance on what to look out for, so that our audience will be more likely to see certain key activities and have a framework for capturing their observations.

And, if taking people into the relevant context is not possible, you can show them the context through photos, videos, storyboards and the like.

Simulation & Immersion

If you visit our offices on any given day, you might see several of our researchers hobbling around on crutches, our Director of Medical wearing a water-filled colostomy bag, and our (male) engineers wearing bras. Although it sounds like the start of a comedy sketch, this odd parade reflects our desire to feel what it's like for the people we're designing for.

One of the basic premises of immersion is giving people the chance to experience what the participants do. If you want them to experience what it's like to use a product or service, give them the product or service. Whilst this sounds incredibly obvious, it's an eye-opener for people who don't realise that not everyone shares their expertise.

If the people you're designing for have specific physical limitations (relating to mobility, eyesight, hearing, grip strength, etc.), you can help the audience simulate those constraints. For example, smearing sunglasses with Vaseline to replicate reduced vision, or wearing thick gloves to approximate problems with dexterity. For more ideas on how simulate physical impairments, see the "Adding Realism" chapter in Usability Testing of Medical Devices.

If the context you're exploring is fairly common (e.g., an office, or a living room) you can use something with a reasonable likeness (your own office, the living rooms in IKEA) or build a replica model. One of our medical clients built an Operating Theatre and a patient room in their facility. Whilst building that room wasn't quick, if someone wants to understand how people react and interact with their products in a highly realistic context, they can simply walk across the hall into one of the mock rooms, which is much faster than the months needed to get approval to go into hospitals.

And, if you want the audience to experience particular emotions, you can ask them to replicate the facial expression or physical stance that corresponds to those emotions. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that peoples' physiological state determines their emotions (sometimes called the theory of self-perception). So asking people to frown will make them experience a dip in mood, while preventing people from frowning (as with Botox patients), makes them happier. Likewise, holding your body in an expansive pose (such as standing with legs and arms stretched wide open) for a few minutes increases self-confidence.

Measuring success

How do you know if your audience was able to build empathy--to understand the participants enough to design something useful, useable and desirable? Whilst the best test would be observing how participants react to the new design, that would require more time and is not something that could be easily accomplished in a short session. Instead, you could ask the audience members how the participants would respond or react to certain situations and have them explain why. An interesting twist on this is a "gift buying" exercise in which you send the audience out to buy a gift for a person (either someone they've interviewed briefly, or someone they've read a story about or seen a persona of). If they've interviewed someone, then the ultimate test of success is how much the recipient liked the gift.

Top Tips for Building Rapid Empathy

1) Make your audience aware (explicitly or implicitly) of their assumptions/prejudices/blind spots regarding the people they'll be designing for before you begin the empathy-building exercise. This helps them incorporate the new data into their existing mind set easier and faster.

2) Do your homework. Figure out what you want your audience to experience, and then pick the relevant methods.

3) Make sure you put a face to the data. Make it human. Empathy is about being able to understand what another person is feeling.

4) Test your audience's understanding and give feedback.