Learning Empathy through Emerging Tech.

Apr 15, 2020 · 4 min read


It’s a term that’s been used by designers, storytellers, marketers, engineers, and so on… The way we understand empathy is by asking a question like “how can I understand you in order to create a product, service, experience, etc. that will delight you, our end user?”

Empathy is everywhere. And it’s at the center of innovating for accessibility. How can we make people see, feel, and understand a perspective that’s not their own? That was the question Meagan Hove wanted to answer with her final project for MEJO 588: Emerging Technologies taught by Steven King, the Chief Innovation Officer of the UNC Reese Innovation Lab.

Hove is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Digital Communications at UNC Hussman’s School of Journalism and Media. She graduated from North Carolina State University in 2015 with a degree in graphic design and has been on a mission to make design more accessible. She was exposed to accessibility design during her internship with SAS prior to graduating from NC State University. From there, she’s had a handful of experiences in finding a relationship between design and accessibility, which is a primary reason why she wanted to pursue her master’s degree.

Hove enrolled in MEJO 588 the spring of 2019. This wasn’t a required class for her curriculum, but she wanted to take it anyway. Not only did she want to learn how emerging technologies can help those with disabilities, but she also wanted to uncover ways that emerging technologies can be a tool for educating others and their accessibility decisions.

“I took this class to get a broader understanding of emerging technologies and how those could be potentially used to solve accessibility problems” — Meagan Hove

A living room with a prompt that says “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live with a vision impairment?”
A living room with a prompt that says “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live with a vision impairment?”
Meagan Hove’s MEJO 588 Final Project using Wonda VR

That was the inspiration behind her incredible project. In MEJO 588, students were given a final project assignment to tell a story or solve a problem using emerging technology. Hove created a VR experience using Wonda VR that revealed what individuals see with certain visual impairments, such as color blindness or vision distortion. A user can toggle between scenes and view them from various perspectives, including Protanopia, Tritanopia, Monochromacy, Diplopia, or Astigmatism viewpoints. For example, you walk into a dining establishment and can’t read the menu board (Diplopia). The color of a red chair appears to be a green/gray color (Protanopia). The purpose of this project? It’s to teach empathy.

Hove is proud of her work but cautions the “walk a mile in their shoes” approach is not a “one size fits all” for teaching empathy and accessibility. The message depends on the disability type, the audience, and the scale. For this project, an educational experience using emerging technology seemed to be the right fit. Hove notes that 1 in 12 men in the world (8%) are affected by color blindness. A statistic that profound brings a call to action on how we can think about accessibility within our lines of work. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have been created based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

From her experience in the design field, Hove notes “as a designer, you have all of this creative freedom, but these guidelines may feel like a damper sometimes.” However, she addresses that these guidelines ignite a designer’s creativity and innovative thinking. When you design with accessibility at the core, you expand the design’s audience. “It’s a creative challenge with a bigger net output,” says Hove.

So, how can we be more accessible within our fields of work? Hove suggests Microsoft’s resources on inclusive design (see below) as a starting ground. She also acknowledges that inclusive design is a continuum; Human behavior is constantly changing. Technology is constantly evolving. As a result, accessibility laws are trying to adapt, but not at the same rate. This is where the challenges surfaces. Therefore, design should be constantly tested and tweaked as these three entities change at different rates over time. As Hove states, “it’s a learning curve for everyone.” And the first step is understanding your audience.

Want to see the world from a different perspective? Experience Meagan’s MEJO 588 Project: https://player.wondavr.com/p/87740230-4169-4920-94eb-7dd91475fa91#start_1

(Note web browsers Chrome and Firefox work best for this experience — or download the Wonda VR app on the Apple App Store or Google Play)

Read more about Inclusive Design from Microsoft: https://www.microsoft.com/design/inclusive/

Check out Meagan’s portfolio of work: http://www.meaganchove.com

— — — — —

The UNC Reese Innovation Lab is also working on projects that focus on the accessibility of emerging technology. Curious to learn? Follow the Lab on social media (Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) and check out our website.

Reese Innovate

Finding new ways to engage audiences with emerging technologies and strong storytelling.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store