In 2008, a radiology resident named Yehonatan Turner wondered if his colleagues would produce better readings of CT scans if they knew more about the patients whose images they were viewing. He designed a study in which radiologists would see photos of the patients next to their scans. The small change made a big difference. All of the radiologists involved in the study reported feeling more empathy for the patients, and in turn, did more meticulous readings of their scans.1
Health Sciences Design also leverages the power of empathy by employing proven methods to collaborate and connect with end users. Using methods like journey mapping, role-playing, diary studies and focus groups, Health Sciences Design helps students look closely at people’s experiences and find transformative solutions with lasting impact.
UX designer Kat Holmes has collected more examples of design ideas that were shaped by a close connection to people and their experiences:
Making Play Inclusive
One of Texas’ most unique water parks, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, was the project of Gordon and Maggie Hartman. Their daughter's cognitive and physical disabilities often kept her from using common playground equipment. They developed a water park where visitors could adjust water temperatures to individual sensory needs and use motorized wheelchairs adapted for water adventures.
Bending to Needs
The flexible straw was developed when a father named Joseph Friedman watched his daughter struggle to drink a milkshake at a counter. He coiled a wire around her straw to create an accordion pattern that would allow it to bend. Since then, flexible straws have helped countless people whose motor skills or other factors prevent them from holding a glass to their mouth.
A predecessor to the keyboard was developed by Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri when his friend (and rumored lover) Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano began to lose her vision — and needed a way to send him private notes without asking someone else to take dictation for her.2
What those examples have in common is that they were products of deep empathy for their end users. They were made to match the users’ needs and abilities to enhance their lives and well-being — all through a process of human-centered design.
- Marya, Rupa and Raj Patel. Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021: 8.
Holmes, Kat. Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018: 118-123.
The concept of shaping products to the human body (ergonomics) appeared in the mid-twentieth century, when designers began using research on human behavior and anatomy to simplify everything from telephones to farm equipment. Lever-style door handles — now standard in hospitals and public buildings — allow hands-free operation. This innovation, which reflects the principles of universal design, rejected the conventional pattern of round doorknobs.
Bon Ku, MD and Ellen Lupton
from Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health. New York: Cooper Hewitt, 2020: 14
Empathy, next to language and opposable thumbs, may be the most powerful tool that evolution has given us. It allows us not to be bound by personal experience.
Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant
from User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. New York: Picador, 2019: 184