Empathic Design Workshop – walking in other people’s shoes…


Having carried out a workshop recently on this theme… I wanted to share with you some of the research I carried out.

Firstly, the week-long workshop focused on transgenerational design, specifically how can young people have empathy with old people and vice versa. In that sense, we took the workshop to two extremes, Generation Z and the Senior Market.  The objective of the workshop was to ask a grousp of cross-cultural students (French, Finnish, Italian) to choose a given theme from 7 ideas and develop empathy tools in order to research and test their them with real people.

Some of the themes:

Being young in an aging world.

Sex and relationships in the third age.

Communication between Gen Z and seniors.


Physical aging…

The definition on Wikipedia is “Empathic design is a user-centered design approach that pays attention to the user’s feelings toward a product (Crossley 2003).

During the course of researching this topic… I came across an advert from KFC (of all brands) using an interesting transgenerational approach… a little like Benjamin Button, an old couple become younger and younger until they become children, and the message of the ad, is that at the end of the day, the kids call the shots when it comes to deciding on KFC.

I then came across this exercise about observation… having real empathy with another person by really studying them physically. I found this approach interesting, as we all probably spend a lot of time with our work or school colleagues, but how many of us really look at the people around us and notice physical aspects about them. My colleague on the workshop, Elyssa Sfar, also added an interesting end to this exercise idea… would we really notice if people removed an item of clothing? Changed their expression? Changed something about them. I think this exercise is an interesting starting point for a workshop of this nature.


Another exercise on this theme is “Walking in Other People’s Shoes”. Each person takes off their shoes and puts them on top of the table. The shoes are studied and then are exchanged by others, so that they literally walk in other people’s shoes. The shoes can be accompanied by adding something personal from their bag, next to the shoes. The two people that have exchanged shoes, then also exchange objects and go for a walk to discuss the object, why they chose it, and what significance it has for them. In this way, empathy is formed in wearing someone else’s shoes and finding out something about them, based on the added element. This exercise is a very good ice-breaker. I found this article interesting in that it talks about the way that medical students should be trained to have empathy… it talks about walking a mile in their patients shoes… and it uses the expressions “empathy” and “othering”… who are the others? (patients) and how can we have real empathy with them.


There are many tools being developed to have empathy with others’ you may have already seen Agnes? MITs Age Lab’s Empathy Suit for aging…but you may not have seen this Empathy Belly suit for underage/young parents to understand what it is like to be pregnant… it is a simulated weighted suit, with sensory aspects simulating the sounds and sensations of having a real baby.

I have talked before about IDEOs Method Cards, but these have several exercises (used by the students) to have empathy with others. You can buy them as a set of cards, or as an App. You can also find a pdf version on-line.  If you want to see how IDEO carry out Empathy, take a look at this..

The results of the workshop will be shown in a second post on this subject… in the meantime, please try and have empathy with the consumers you are working for… they are people with thoughts, feelings and physical aspects that are sometimes necessary to understand totally.

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