A team of researchers at the Kahlert School of Computing has won a best paper honorable mention award for their paper describing a new approach to teaching students about design empathy in the classroom. The award-winning paper will be presented at the Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2024 conference taking place this week in Copenhagen, Denmark.

When software companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft create or improve applications they start by doing lots of work to better understand their users. User experience researchers collect data: they observe, interview, survey, and study potential users so that they can understand how the software might fit into their lives, also known as developing “design empathy” for those potential users. Having design empathy is valuable even to other people on the software teams who are not designers – software engineers and project managers make better software when they understand more about who is using it and how it will be used. 

This is even more crucial when people are creating software for people whose lives are very different from their own: for example, when someone who does not have a disability is designing software that will be used by people who do have disabilities, as is often the case. However, teaching students about design empathy is a difficult challenge for professors: collecting this data is itself a skill, and it requires the participation of other third parties to serve as “the users.” Again, when working with a population of users with disabilities, this can be a particular challenge.

Newly graduated doctoral students Tamanna Motahar and Noelle Brown, along with their advisors Professors Eliane Stampfer Wiese and Jason Wiese, developed a new approach to more effectively teach design empathy in the classroom. The approach leverages the fact that many people post publicly about their experiences on social media platforms such as Reddit. The team first collected some of these posts for a particular user community: people who have had a spinal cord injury. They categorized each post based on its subject, and then used those categories to guide the creation of fictional design scenarios: going to the grocery store, going on vacation, returning to school after an injury, and handling air travel.

They then selected some of the posts, paraphrased or changed their wording to protect the identity and privacy of the original poster, and curated the posts into a reading assignment that would accompany each scenario. Finally, they wrote a multi-part assignment around these scenarios and posts. In part 1, students are each assigned to think through one of the design scenarios using a series of questions to prompt their thinking. Part 2 involves reading the curated and paraphrased posts, described above. In part 3 the students come together in class with groups of 3-4 students who were assigned different scenarios to discuss their thoughts after reading the posts. In part 4, the students revisit their individual design scenarios from part 1 to see if they would add or change anything.

To test the idea, the team deployed the project in a small class that Professor Jason Wiese was teaching. “What we saw was that despite the students providing thoughtful responses to the design prompt in part 1, their in-class conversations and final responses in part 4 showed that their perspective really shifted and they considered the impact of many more real-world factors after reading the posts,” said Motahar, the lead author of the paper. 

The research team plans to further refine the assignment and to work towards sharing the assignment materials more broadly, so that other teachers can use them to teach students about developing design empathy. One important consideration in this work, and especially about sharing the assignment materials, is about the ethical implications of using social media posts for a purpose other than what was originally intended by the poster, and also to protect the privacy of those posters. The research team followed broadly agreed upon best practices for working with such social media data, including removing any identifiers – including usernames or locations – and changing the words of the posts before using them while still preserving the meaning of the original post.

The full paper is available online: Tamanna Motahar, Noelle Brown, Eliane Stampfer Wiese, and Jason Wiese. Toward Building Design Empathy for People with Disabilities Using Social Media Data: A New Approach for Novice Designers. In Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ’24). https://doi.org/10.1145/3643834.3660687