Implications of contextual empathic design for engineering education

Benedikt von Unold, Annette Isabel Böhmer, Tua A. Björklund, Nicolas Ledl, Udo Lindemann, George Toye, Sheri Sheppard

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
171 Downloads (Pure)


This research paper describes the results of a study exploring how user backgrounds can systematically be considered in design activities and how this can be used to enhance engineering design courses. In human-centered engineering design, understanding what users desire and need is key for creating innovative solutions [1]. Uncovering insights of users is needed as a backbone to provide the best possible solution for real customer needs. In this process, it is important to consider the background of users such as their culture, gender, education, or socio-economic class. Many project-based engineering design courses have been developed over the years to explicitly address user needs. However, little is known on how influential these exercises are on the subsequent design decisions. In order to move towards evidence-based education, we need to be able to understand the impact of these exercises to improve students' ability to consider user backgrounds. This study is based on a multiple case study of eleven student projects sampled within the past four years of the three-quarter master's level engineering design course ME310 at Stanford University. First, mid- and end-of project reports ranging from 50 to 250 pages were coded from seven projects, chosen after a teaching team session in which the projects were ranked. Four high-performing and three low-performing projects, in which people were seen highly pertinent to the design brief, were chosen for the analysis. A systematic comparison of the methods and strategies reported in each project was performed. Second, four ongoing projects from 2016 were chosen for further study in which people played a large part in the design brief. Students from these four projects were interviewed mid-course on how and why they considered user backgrounds. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis, coding each interview for the reported problems and influences for considerations regarding user backgrounds. The analysis revealed that challenges in considering user backgrounds occur on three different levels: First, teams are not aware of the background of the user as they do not consciously think about it (lack of awareness). Second, they do not understand the user background, even if they are aware of it (lack of empathy). Third, some teams are aware of the background and understand it but do not integrate the knowledge into the design (lack of integration). Especially methods with direct user contact and ones, in which designers immerse themselves in the user perspective are effective as hereby designers rely less on stereotypes and the empathic process is facilitated. We develop a set of methods called "Contextual Empathic Design (CED)" based on the identified successful patterns of the student design projects to counteract problems occurred in user considerations. These guidelines enhance the education of engineers by improving their needfinding capabilities leading to an advanced overall ability to innovate. Further, this paper marks a novel way of supporting human centered design and provides recommendations on how CED can be translated into modern engineering education.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2018 ASEE annual conference & exposition
PublisherAmerican Society for Engineering Education
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2018
MoE publication typeA4 Article in a conference publication
EventASEE Annual Conference - Salt Palace Convention Center, Salt Lake City, United States
Duration: 23 Jun 201827 Jun 2018

Publication series

NameASEE annual conference & exposition proceedings
PublisherAmerican Society for Engineering Education
ISSN (Print)2153-5965
ISSN (Electronic)2153-5868


ConferenceASEE Annual Conference
CountryUnited States
CitySalt Lake City
Internet address

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