Empathy at the heart of design

4 min read
Kaysie Garza
  •  Sep 13, 2017
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The most common, preventable cause of infant mortality in premature babies is hypothermia. But if you live in a remote village in Nepal, keeping a newborn warm isn’t as easy as it sounds.

A group of students at Stanford’s tackled this very challenge for a class called Design for Extreme Affordability. However, they ran into something not many designers can identify with—empathizing with families, and babies, halfway around the world.

Read: The full story of the Embrace on DesignBetter.Co

To bridge this literal and metaphorical gap, the team left the bubble of Stanford’s campus to conduct research.

“Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.”
–Tim Brown, IDEO

After landing in Nepal, the team set out to visit homes, hospitals, and doctors to inform the proposed solution: a portable incubator called Embrace. But the real work began once they moved into the prototyping phase.

The team’s journey is a perfect demonstration of why practicing empathy—and applying it to the design process—is so crucial to a useful solution. For example, when the students shared their prototype, women immediately pointed out a major flaw.

A mother explained that she and other village mothers believe Western medicines are strong. Typically, this means they cut prescribed doses in half. When it came to the Embrace’s temperature indicator, the mother interviewed said people wouldn’t heat it to the suggested temperature—only halfway.

With this feedback, the group decided to remove the temperature strip, showing an “OK” indicator instead of a digit. Most importantly, this wasn’t the only piece of information they used to shape the final product. The students incorporated feedback from doctors, shopkeepers, and families.

Today, the product has saved more than 3,000 babies, but the Embrace’s efficacy wouldn’t be possible without multiple perspectives.

You don’t have to travel around the world to practice empathy. Your team can try the Wallet Exercise, adapted by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery to fit into a 15-minute block.

For a semi-unfiltered view into the day-to-day environment of your users, conduct a camera study.

By recruiting users to document their environments and daily routines, you’ll see beyond the scope of just your product. These images can help you understand people on a more personal, complete level.

The group demonstrates why a user’s full environment matters to the product design process—whether your audience lives in a village or a villa.

For other expert insights and suggestions, or to learn more about the Embrace and its development, check out the Design Thinking Handbook on DesignBetter.Co.

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