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Empathetic Design Leads to Better Problem Solving 

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

There seem to be several definitions and methodologies for "empathetic design." We, at Fab Lab ICC, use a model developed by the dSchool (Design School) at Stanford University. The dSchool was founded by a former engineer named David Kelley. David grew up in small Barberton, Ohio and while working as Boeing engineering decided he didn't really like the kind of work he was doing. He became friends with Steve Jobs and left Boeing to start a design company called Ideo. It was Ideo that developed the first computer mouse. As Ideo flourished, David ended up with an opportunity to teach at Stanford and eventually came the opportunity to create the dSchool. At the dSchool, design teams are made up of graduate students from all kinds of backgrounds and disciplines. The diversity leads to great innovation since everyone on the teams thinks differently. 

Over the years, they've come up with a 5-step design process to find new and innovative ways to solve problems. New and innovative ways to solve problems is what we strive to instill in everyone involved with Fab Lab ICC. 


The first step is to observe people going about various aspects in life and the problems they face. It could be someone struggling with a device that doesn't work right, a young mother at an airport struggling with all the stuff needed to travel with young children or people in a third-world country struggling to find fresh water. 

Ideo once designed a new ice cream dipper. They observed people using existing dippers and tried to empathize with the challenges they observed. One thing they noticed was the nearly everyone licked the dipper when serving was finished. Even though our mothers would be horrified, that was the observation so one of the design criteria as to make sure there were no sharp edges or pinch points on any new device. 


After considerable observation, the team works to define what problem they will solve. Sometimes the problem is discreet and straightforward to define, other times it's more complicated. Defining the problems people face when dipping ice cream is straightforward. Defining the problems people face when going to a medical appointments can be a little more complex. 


Some people would call this brainstorming, but after defining the problem to be solved, the problem solver or team goes about coming up with "new and innovative" ways to solve the problem. The ability to come up with new solutions is like a muscle. The ability is weak and challenging at first, but the more we practice, the better we get. As we see people come to the Fab Lab in camps, classes and member visits, we watch their problem solving abilities grow with each project. 


After one or a few possible solutions are created in "Ideation" the prototype helps demonstrate the solution in a low cost way. After all, at the point after Ideation, we don't really know which of the solutions, if any, work. For tangible products, the prototype starts out "low-fidelity," rough but produced quickly and at a low cost. For intangible solutions, like services or concepts the prototypes can be artifacts that help share the ideas. 


Once the prototype(s) are completed, not perfected, it's time to show them to the people having the problem and test them as much as possible. During the testing stage we listen carefully to the observations and reactions of those with the problem to gain insight into improvements and changes that can be made. 

Step and Repeat 

After the test phase, the process is repeated; sometimes back to the Empathize stage or one of the others. This can go on from one to several times until there is a minimum viable product (MVP.) The MVP is robust enough that early adopters, those with the problem that are willing to try, even if not perfect. In the case of a commercial solution, this means the early adopters are willing to pay for the MVP. 

None of us are very good at predicting what new products or solutions are going to be used and accepted in the marketplace. We get good feedback from what people say and the opinions they give, but the true test is when people "buy" the MVP, either through the exchange of money or the implementation of a new process. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks. 

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