A Framework for Empathetic Problem Solving

October 2, 2012 in Human-Centered Design
Lauren Chapman
Human Scientist

The 8th International Conference on Design & Emotion was held at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London, England, September 11-14. Besides a lineup of amazing keynote speakers, the conference featured 110 academic papers, case studies, and posters, and 11 workshops. The conference focused on design, across various commercial sectors, within the context of emotion and the human experience.

I attended this conference two years ago when it was held in Chicago; and this time I had the privilege of presenting.

The theme this year was “Out of Control”: we are living in a world fraught with wicked problems, yet ripe with opportunity to apply creative problem solving. The Design & Emotion Society describes this theme in greater detail:

“A world driven by uncertainty, crisis and chaos demands different responses from design (as a community, a practice and a process). On one hand we can mitigate against these by designing systems that can withstand, or manage, the challenges they produce. Here there is a focus upon design as a “problem-solving” activity. On the other, we can use them as springboards to a creative future. In this way, design as “opportunity mapping” becomes important.”

At MAYA, we constantly remind ourselves to remember the complexity of human beings, and the varying contexts in which a person will be interacting with our clients’ products.

Here at MAYA, we practice design both as problem solving and opportunity mapping, imagining innovative future scenarios. In my presentation, I examined how human-centered design creates a framework for empathetic problem solving. Specifically, I presented my graduate thesis work, Design for Chronic Illness: Exploring Service Systems & New Technologies for Patients with Type 2 Diabetes, and a current MAYA project, Food Oasis. These two case studies show how human-centered design can be applied to problems in the healthcare space, and encourage the audience to apply their creative skills to healthcare.

My graduate thesis explores the concept of “CareMentors”—a mentoring service which pairs a newly diagnosed patient with type 2 diabetes to a peer mentor to assist with the learning and management of the condition.

Food Oasis looks at increasing healthy eating habits in “food deserts” (areas that lack ready access to fresh, unprocessed foods), by providing access to healthy food options through basic SMS texting. Food Oasis is aimed at preventing obesity and other chronic conditions, which often flourish in food deserts.

Both of these projects have been a success through human-centered design methods. Given such, you can imagine my surprise at the number of presentations at the conference which assumed understanding what makes a user “happy” or willing to “change a habit” was easy, using little user research and taking the attitude that what works for one person will work for another. It is hard to imagine designing an experience that will fit everyone’s subjective version of happiness without committing time to detailed user research. I was not to be disappointed though—before the conference ended, I participated in a group discussion, which roused my spirits regarding others’ belief that human-centered design is essential.

We discussed the fact that emotion is both subjective to each individual, and
dependent on context. At MAYA, we constantly remind ourselves to remember
the complexity of human beings, and the varying contexts in which a person will be interacting with our clients’ products. CareMentors takes a deep look at how people engage with one another, and the varying ways peer mentor relationships are formed—all are dependent on the individual person. Food Oasis explores what causes different people to make the decisions they do about what to eat.

I walked away from the conference with three key words that are important to keep in mind as we design:

  • Specificity: It is important to collect quantitative data, but it is
    through such user research methods as interviews and contextual inquiry that we can begin to learn much more about the people for whom we design. Ethnographic research methods allow a designer to understand a subjective experience.

  • Idiographic: As we look at data and analyze it, remember that everyone
    has different experiences. Words, actions, events, objects, etc., have different meanings for different people. User research can help us understand more closely each individual experience.

  • Ambulatory: As we research, we need to move about from place to place
    in order to study emotions in a person’s real-world environment. Only by studying in context, can we better grasp the meaning behind emotions and a person’s experience.

The more we can understand our users, the more we can understand how to engage them.

Quantitative data can be easier to communicate and is more accepted in the analytical world we live in, but qualitative data can help us better understand subjective experiences. That’s why at MAYA we stress the importance of human-centered design. As we go out into the world to design, utilizing a healthy dose of both approaches empowers us to create a truly fulfilling user experience or product. The more we can understand our users, the more we can understand how to engage them. We can design frameworks in which co-creation is leveraged, giving space for a person to build what he or she needs within these frameworks.

In short, we need to design people back into the design process and make technology work for people rather than the other way around. We are always tackling the question—how can we bend technology to fit our users? How can we understand a person’s mental model to build the most effective solution?

Declan O’Carroll of Arup Associates summed this up nicely in his closing keynote when he said, “As designers, we should be listening.”

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