Design Empathy

Consider all likely users when designing a space.

Posted Aug 28, 2017

We’re all different. “Obviously,” you say—but lots of people forget this simple fact the moment they begin to make design decisions—and as a result visitors to their homes and offices are uncomfortable, embarrassed, or injured.

Some of the people who visit your home or office will be taller or shorter than you are, no matter how tall or short you are. They’ll also weigh more or less and may even have sensory apparatus that works a little differently than yours—some may be colorblind or have difficulty hearing, for example. It’s overpowering to consider all of the possible differences that might exist between you and the people you invite into your home or office, but a little common sense will make it clear what sorts of variations on the human form you should design for.

Do you come from a family that tends to weigh a little bit more than others? Then, even if you’re slim and trim yourself, make sure there are seats in your living room that a tubbier sort will feel comfortable sitting down in—and that will support their weight.

Everyone has some tall friends and some short ones. Make sure there’s a chair in that same living room that a shorter friend can sit in without being “infantilized.” That means that their feet need to be able to touch the floor when they sit normally in at least one of the chairs; feeling like a toddler perched on the “gown up” chairs is not good for anyone’s psyche. Don’t purchase a dining room table that visitors who tend to tallness won’t be able to slip their knees under, even if you can tuck in your own chair without a thought. 

Bad backs make standing up for an entire party challenging—remember that your mom has one when you plan your Holiday Soiree. Have chairs available, even if the space they take up reduces the number of people who can attend your party.

Think about the color blind when you label your home or office—will people with compromised color vision be able to read what you’ve posted outside your door

Sometimes temporary situations make it challenging for someone to use a space. People with sprained ankles, for example, will have difficulty standing up after sitting on a pillow on the floor—anticipate this problem before they arrive if you’ve heard about their ankle mishap and have a seat that they can use available when they get to your home. 

Clothes also affect use of a space. Short tight skirts also make floor sitting difficult and spike heals leads to “balance issues” at parties on lawns—and you have to know that no matter what you say on the invitation some people will wear stilettos, so some spaces that people can get to without tussling with the grass are always required at outdoor parties.

Whenever you put together a space or plan an experience, consider the different ways people will likely experience the situations you’ve planned—because of their physical conditions, their clothes, or something else. Design empathy is like all the other sorts of empathizing you can do—it makes the world a better place to live.