Beyond surface knowledge: An exploration of how empathic design techniques enhances engineers understanding of users' needs

Diana Bairaktarova, William Z. Bernstein, Tahira Reid, Karthik Ramani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


This study explores the role of empathic design techniques on solving design problems in a developing world context. In our study, over 100 graduate students were asked to individually conceptualize and design an extremely affordable washing machine to be used in developing countries. All participating students, many of whom had significant industry experience, were enrolled in a graduate-level product design course. This course is as much about design thinking and learning as it is about design innovation, creativity and doing design. The design of an artifact is addressed from a multidisciplinary perspective that includes determination through inspiration, ideation, and implementation using a design thinking framework. Student submissions were categorized based on (1) design methods such as concept generation, product definition, prototyping and design verification, and (2) student demographic information. The application of the design methods on the project influenced the further development of class-based exercises that infuse empathy into design. The study presented here also provides a framework for engaging distance-learning students within hands-on empathic-design exercises. The results show that techniques such as interviews of focus groups and immersive practices help students to better understand user needs in developing world contexts, leading to more feasible design solutions. Visual thinking was also linked as an effective means to engage students in empathic design without the use of physical materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-122
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • General Engineering


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