Empathic Design Research
Joyce Thomas, IDSA and Deana McDonagh, IDSA | University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Worldwide population demographics are shifting. People are living longer and expecting a higher quality of life. Over a typical lifespan people can develop a range of physical disabilities which are no longer perceived as a barrier to having a good quality of life. Users expect more than functionality alone from their products. They expect their cultural, social and aspirational needs to be satisfied by the products with which they surround themselves. Industrial Design (ID) practitioners are innovative problem solvers, serving as the voice of the user in the product development process. They ensure more appropriate design outcomes by engaging and studying people in their naturalistic environments to gain a deeper understanding of user behaviors and perceptions towards products. Designers are traditionally and ostensibly ablebodied men and women.
The user experience of people with disabilities is often significantly different from able-bodied people. They face challenges that an able-abled person may not even be aware of. More often than not, people with disabilities are not in a position to take for granted what others accept without question – e.g., able-bodied people have an expectation that they will be able to enter, exit and move around a new venue easily, where a person in a wheelchair may not have the same assumption. The conditions that provide the starting point for people with disabilities reimagining the material landscape (i.e., the products that people surround themselves with and that fill their personal and public environments) may or may not be radically different from their able-bodied counterparts. What they must contend with, however, are the limiting factors of the environment, the nature of their disability and interpretation of it by others, as well as the seemingly universal phenomenon of devaluation (Vash & Crewe, 2004). In particular, people with disabilities face barriers in accessing the materials, skills, and facilities where industrial designers are educated and work.
To the extent that barriers are excluding people with disabilities from the designing process, we are faced with an under-utilized resource and therefore missing significant opportunities for novel and more creative solutions – not just in the realm of everyday objects for people with disabilities, but in the realm of everyday objects for the entire population. An ongoing course and research project (Disability + Relevant Design) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are concentrating on breaking down barriers which prevent people with disabilities from becoming active participants in the designing process.