Architects and empathy: the key to inclusive design

A man wearing simulation gloves and glasses tries to open a sticky note padLoughborough University has a good track record for inclusive design research. The latest article reports on a study to find out if “empathetic modelling” could influence architects’ design thinking. Impaired vision and manual dexterity are the most common losses as people age. So these factors were used in the study to improve architects’ empathy and understanding of users.

The method involved using glasses and gloves that simulate loss of vision and loss of hand dexterity. Participants were given reading, writing and dexterity tasks while wearing the gloves and glasses.

The results show that the tasks challenged their traditional view of disability, seeing it more as a continuum and effecting a wider population. A summary of the key themes were:

• Inadequacy of the current building standard, Access to and Use of Buildings. It only recommends minimum access standards. Thee is no incentive for developers to go beyond minimum compliance.
• Developers often commission design briefs so the end user is often unknown.
• In the absence of knowing their end user, they tend to design for themselves.
• They feel there is a stigma associated with accessible designs and this reinforces the disability-centric concept of able bodied versus disability designs.
• It challenged their traditional view on disability and capability loss and the current polarised view within design, between ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled-users’.
• A lack of inclusive design training within their undergraduate and post graduate training and a desire to include more in their continuing professional development.
• Participants felt strongly that commercial, accessible design decisions, mainly addressed physical impairments.
• All participants reported an increased awareness of the psychological effects of the simulated capability loss, reporting frustration and fatigue.

The title of the article is, How ‘Empathetic modelling’ positively influences Architects’ empathy, informing their Inclusive Design-Thinking.  Arthritis is rarely recorded as a disability but it affects one in seven Australians. Opening packages, lifting the kettle and turning door knobs can be difficult and painful. 


Empathy is described in the literature as being the first stage in the Design-Thinking cycle. Architects and Design professionals should ‘Empathise’ with their users to understand their needs and gain insight into the exclusion barriers that many users face within the Built Environment. This paper presents the results of a study conducted with a cohort of Architects, investigating whether an ‘Empathetic Modelling’ intervention could influence their intrapersonal state empathy levels and inform their inclusive Design-Thinking. A validated empathy scale was used to measure Architects empathy levels, pre and post intervention. Visual acuity and hand dexterity were the two capability losses simulated, with participants performing common Activities of Daily Living (ADL) and two design tasks. Results showed that all participants empathy scores increased, when comparing pre and posttest measures. This was supported with qualitative data, with results suggesting that all participants gained unique and useful insights into how they can incorporate more accessibility, adaptability and inclusivity into future designs, to reduce user exclusion within the built environment. This increased awareness of incorporating an inclusive design philosophy, has positive implications for design professionals understanding the diverse needs of the wider user population and especially for the increasing ageing population, who want to maintain their independence and enjoy barrier-free access to the built environment.