Start with Empathy

Empathy is at the core of Human-Centered Design (HCD), a methodology pioneered by IDEO. The global design firm describes empathy as “the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand their lives, and start to solve problems from their perspectives,” which aligns with IDEO’s mission to “create positive impact through design.” HCD holds the potential to help project teams solve real problems and create meaningful change, and it has been applied in diverse contexts – ranging from underserved communities across the globe to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Field Guide to Human Centered Design (a.k.a. Design Kit) provides a roadmap for a project team to practice empathy by designing products (in the broadest sense of the term) with users. Design Kit equips a project team and their core audience with mindsets and methods that will help them reach a mutual understanding of the needs and experiences that should inform every stage of the design process. While problem-solving is prominent in IDEO’s view of empathy, it is worth noting that (in practice) HCD can help teams realize opportunities for improving their audience’s experience, rather than think in the negative or technical terms of problems to be solved.

In Communicating Design, Dan M. Brown outlines the key elements of a methodology, which is driven by:

  • a project’s requirements
    • grounded in understanding a problem and what a solution needs to do to address it
  • the steps a project team takes to design and test a product

HCD incorporates these elements and can guide project teams as they produce the deliverables Brown defines.

Design Kit is toolbox of methods that shapes the contours of the design process from Inspiration to Ideation to Implementation, while allowing a project team flexibility in applying the methods that make sense in the context of a particular project. While framing a design challenge is essential for all projects, storyboarding may not be. The beauty of Design Kit lies in its broad applicability and its recognition that no two projects are the same.

The practicality of the resources Design Kit provides – from clear questions that can help project teams navigate each phase of the design process, to worksheets that help teams put HCD methods into practice – makes HCD accessible to teams confronting a diverse range of design challenges. In short, Design Kit is usable. Each Design Kit method includes a clear definition and description; at-a-glance “Stats” that outline the suggested time for an activity, its level of difficulty, any necessary materials, and the team members who should be involved; and step-by-step instructions. Clarity and consistency – in information hierarchy, use of visual elements (color, type, illustrations), and use of straightforward language – contribute to the usability of Design Kit.

If HCD seems like a good fit for your work, “Inclusive Design” is a complementary design methodology that is worth considering. As with HCD, empathy is at the core of Inclusive Design, which recognizes that “many people are unable to participate in aspects of society, both physical and digital.” The Inclusive Design Toolkit is a resource that provides guidance for “understanding why and how people are excluded” so that we might design “a diversity of ways for everyone to participate in an experience with a sense of belonging.”

As (public) historians, developing a fluency in design methodologies like HCD and Inclusive Design can help us understand our audiences, communicate with them more effectively, and potentially facilitate more meaningful interactions with history. We recognize that there is value in understanding the complexities and contingency inherent in history – that there are human stories, motivations, and needs at the center of what we study – shouldn’t we recognize the same in our audiences?

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