can we design with empathy in mind?

News – 26 October 2022

You cannot build a better society on your own. To do this, people need to band together and tackle problems together. However, this is only possible if there is a basis for trust and understanding. A group of Dutch designers, including Froukje Sleeswijk Visser from TU Delft, wondered if it is possible to create such a solid foundation in an increasingly polarized world. Can we design with empathy in mind? And what role can digital technology like Virtual Reality play in helping us understand what it means to be in each other’s shoes? Welcome to Bubble Games…

Technology Sustainability

Imagine… A camera mounted on a drone floats towards a new construction area on the outskirts of Eindhoven. Behind the green fields and waterways we see a collection of neat red brick apartments that together form the Meerhoven district. The camera pans to street level and floats along the shopping street. It is clean and quiet. Every now and then a bicycle comes by; it is a typical Dutch neighborhood scene. But looks are deceiving…

A narrator tells us that beneath the harmonic surface there is an undercurrent of tension. Irritations regularly reach boiling point around the shopping center as a result of daily confrontations between the neighborhood’s youth and other residents.

Perhaps you now shrug your shoulders and write off Meerhoven as another problem area: it is not your problem after all. But you won’t get away with it that easily, because this isn’t just any documentary. This is a virtual reality movie from the Bubble Games Consortium and you are about to experience what it feels like to live someone else’s life.

Bram (19), Andy (19), Tjitske (44) and Pierre (62) represent “the young people” and the “other residents”. These four people were hired as representatives of their neighborhood and were told that it was a research project on Virtual Reality and empathy.

The resulting 3D film, “Like I Know You…” works on several levels. First of all, the film allows the viewer to feel the emotional and physical effects of virtual reality (VR), which Bram, Andy, Tjitske and Pierre experienced as part of the project. For example, if you are in Tjitske’s daughter’s bedroom, while she cleans up her daughter’s pajamas and makes the bed and talks about their life in the neighborhood. It leads to an extraordinary sense of intimacy. Likewise when you enter and take a look at the immaculate white living room of Pierre, a man who wants to focus on his hobby: making music in peace. You can sense that he is an attentive man. He plays electric guitar with headphones on and apparently prefers not to be disturbed by noise when he opens his windows in the summer. But when you arrive at the picnic table on the edge of Meerhoven, where Andy and Bram smoke checkies and chat, the perspective changes for these two young men who yearn for respect and a place where they are not judged negatively. infinitely more. recognizable.

After donning the VR goggles to immerse themselves in the lives of their neighbors, all four participants stated that they identified better with each other after being exposed to the other’s perspective. “That VR video… it’s like you really step into their world and sit on their sofa…” says Tjitske. But as the film goes on to show, the project’s ambitions go beyond simply experimenting with the out-of-body experience VR offers. The Bubble Games Consortium, funded by CLICKNL, brings together the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at TU Delft with Fabrique, Eindhoven Municipality, Fontys Hogescholen, VR Gorilla, Fonkeling, Liesbeth Bonekamp and ASML. Together, they explore the broader question of whether design interventions can counter polarization before it takes root and ultimately increase social cohesion.

To this end, a few weeks after the VR screening, the project participants will be reunited in a co-design workshop, facilitated by Jeroen van Erp, Fabrique’s innovation strategist and IDE alumnus. Based on a scale model of the neighborhood, they are asked to discuss each other’s experiences with the neighborhood. Do they have ideas to improve their own community? Do they see opportunities in the spaces? The film ends with Jeroen van Erp introducing Bram, Pierre and Tjitske to a number of representatives of the municipality. They discuss their ideas for improvement together, for example holding a competition to encourage locals to come up with ideas for better places for young people to hang out.

The spillover effect of this project, which has been nominated for the Hein Roethof Prize for promoting social security, could be significant. But what can the design intervention itself—including the process of creating the documentary, the VR rendering, and the co-design workshop to discuss the neighborhood-scale model—tell us about the possibility and scalability of designs for empathy? Can we enhance people’s innate ability to understand each other through good design? And is it possible to amplify this possible effect, by elevating empathy over one-to-one relationships, to influence how we view different groups in society?

“From the beginning, our theory was that the residents’ empathy towards each other would increase by participating in this small project. The mere fact that they were willing to participate indicated that they were open to alternative perspectives,” explains associate professor Froukje Sleswijk Visser. She is a young researcher who appears in the documentary herself and who interviews and observes the residents. “But for me as a design researcher, the big questions were how do we measure the empathic effect and how their increase in empathy occurs with the others.”

In tackling these questions, Schleswijk Visser returned to a model she developed as a PhD student. Her “Framework for Empathy in Design” (2009) describes four phases of user-centered design: discovery – when your curiosity about another person is aroused, immersion – when you spend time in another context, link – when you start to feel something about what it could be like to be that person and secession – when you step out of that context with the knowledge that enables you to design the product, service or system that suits the specific user.

Using this model as a reference point, Associate Professor Schleswijk Visser steered the Bubble Games project away from standard empathy-based questionnaires typically used in mental health settings, and instead developed a more qualitative approach. Her holistic measurement approach consisted of interviews and observations from researchers and assessments of the participant’s level of empathy based on key milestones. Empathy was divided into four aspects, namely the willingness to participate in the project, the degree of curiosity, the degree to which the perspective changed and the degree to which the use of language softened.

If we plot the Bubble Games experiment on a graph, we can see an impressive upward trend. The core phases of the design intervention (the first interviews, viewing of the VR and the co-design workshop), which corresponded to the immersion and connection phases of the Slesvig Visser framework, contributed to increasing (and maintaining) the level of empathy over time.

And how does Schleswijk Visser see the specific role of VR in this? She explains that VR is not only personal and intimate, like the scenes with Tjitske making her daughter’s bed, but that it surrounds and holds you as a viewer. Unless you remove the glasses, you can’t do anything but see and feel the other person’s perspective.

“Although we usually see empathy as something that happens in a one-to-one relationship,” argues Schleswijk Visser, “it was surprising to observe how, after watching VR, the participants not only referred to the other individuals, but also to the groups they represented, which may suggest that the empathy framework design may have greater utility in the fight against polarization.”

Burst your bubble at a screening of “Like I Know You…”

The Bubble Games Consortium is organizing various screenings of their VR film, “As if I know you…”, including on October 25 during Dutch Design Week 2022. Registration is required. You can also email to ask about alternative dates.

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