Loughborough University
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Empathic design: emerging design research methodologies

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posted on 2011-01-19, 11:46 authored by D.C. McDonagh
A new relationship between product designers and the users of products is emerging. It is now being realised that users have complex supra-functional needs, which include the emotional, spiritual, social, tribal aspects of the relationship between particular products and the user/consumer'. Users seek more than mere functionality. In order to meet these needs designers need to actively develop research methodologies that are specifically aimed at collecting design relevant data which includes the often difficult to grasp elements of the supra-functional. The comfort zone for many designers involves designing products for themselves (or people like themselves) when intuition and insight can be closely matched. In modern, international markets and with increasingly demanding consumers, such approaches are inadequate. However, it is possible for designers to become directly immersed in researching users' needs and experiences rather than rely on third party research which, whilst potentially valuable, does not enable the same intimacy and potential for growth of experience for the designer. This approach is termed empathic design research. It seeks to broaden designers' 'comfort zone' by expanding the number of people they can empathise with, broadening their 'empathic horizon'. This thesis presents a body of published work by the author that explores the position of design research in relation to the changing role of Industrial/Product designers. The thesis consists of an introductory paper that pulls together the various strands in the published work. Following this a set of ten journal papers, one refereed conference paper and three book chapters is presented. The work as a whole defines a number of research approaches that designers can employ to elicit and understand users' suprafunctional needs. The papers establish the evolving context of product design and the growing interest in User-centred Design in its various forms. They examine research approaches that extend beyond user observation, involvement and draw the designer into a more empathic contact with users to illuminate functional and supra-functional requirements. Designers must learn to 'get under the skin' of the user; to develop empathy with users from population groups very different from their own in terms of culture, age and ability. This empathic intimacy can result in data generation and insight with this evaluation becoming an integral part of the designing process. The changing role of the product designer, as well as the nature of the design research process, frames the argument for adopting an empathic design research model. Finally, the author explores the implications of this important paradigm shift for design education.



  • Design and Creative Arts


  • Design


Loughborough University

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© Deana Catherine McDonagh

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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  • en


Howard Denton ; David Weightman ; Laurel Campbell

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  • PhD

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

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  • I have submitted a signed certificate

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