Mapping Empathy and Ethics in the Design Process



Product & Industrial Design


  • human-centred design, ethics, collaboration

There is no doubt that the role of product designers has changed considerably, not least with the rise of human-centred design. While Papanek’s 1971 “Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change” seemed radical at the time, his ideas seem entirely at home in the 21st century, including his call to adopt more social responsibility in design. These views are echoed in the contemporary  findings  of  professionals  and  researchers  associated  with  ICSID,  the  International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. The focus has shifted, from the designer as the expert to the user, or community, as the expert in their own environment; and Co-design, Participatory design, and Universal Design are but a few examples of such people-focussed design approaches.  And, as design is  increasingly  used  as  a  tool  for  social  development,  the  exposure  of  designers  to  vulnerable individuals and communities has increased.  While research fields such as the social sciences have a long history of developing a code of ethics that is explicit, younger fields such as human-centred design and design research do not.  While design and design research have adopted many social sciences  methodologies  (such  as  ethnography),  the  issue  of  ethics  and  accountability  in  design remains largely undiscussed.

The increasing importance of understanding the user in the design process is a key feature of human- centred design.   Empathy is often described as “stepping into someone’s shoes”, however the full value of this process is described in Empathic Design.   This deep understanding of the user’s circumstances is temporary, and the designer then steps back out, with an enriched understanding of the user, enabling better design solutions. However, the interactions with the user - in order to gain this deep understanding - can also raise ethical concerns at stages during the design process.

The aim of this position paper is to explore the interaction moments, between designer and user, or designer and community within the design process. The Double Diamond design process will be analysed with a view to looking at characteristic tools in each stage, in order to reveal activities that require empathetic considerations. The contribution of this research will be an empathy map of the double diamond design process, with ethical implications. The significance of the analysis will be to highlight ethical concerns for individual designers, design researchers as well as those in Design Education.

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