The Life-Changing Impact of Empathy in Design

This article was first published on the User Defenders: Podcast newsletter.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

When was the last time you saw a designer break down into tears when talking about the product they created to make life better for others?

Think about that for a second.

Actually I’ll give you minutes, hours, days, years.

Because I’m willing to bet you can’t think of one offhand.

Honestly, I didn’t know how to answer this either…until I saw this:

The designer’s name is Doug Dietz, and what he designed was a fun, kid-friendly MRI machine.

Dietz is an industrial designer at G.E. who designed the large MRI scanners we know today.

You know, those PC-beige, Armageddon-noisy, sit still for nearly an hour while you’re buried alive into a claustrophobic tiny blackhole, scanners?

Yeah, those.

Well, thankfully, Dietz is a designer who practices intensely genuine empathy by projecting his own consciousness into that of the people he’s designing for.

In other words, he all but literally puts himself into the shoes of his users.

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Superpower of Observation

It all started the first time he observed a little girl who was crying on her way to the scanner he designed.

Dietz suddenly saw the situation with the eyes of the girl.

In his TED talk, he recalls, “The room itself is kind of dark and has those flickering fluorescent lights–that machine that I had designed basically looked like a brick with a hole in it.”

Dietz knew in that moment that something had to be done, so he took the initiative to completely reimagine and redesign the experience for children–many of whom are already very fragile from severe health issues.

What came forth was The Adventure Series.

GE Adventure Series — The Pirate Room

Impact of Innovation

The innovation was a smashing success.

Patient satisfaction scores went up 90 percent. Children going into this thing did not suffer anxiety anymore, with some even asking their parents if they can come back tomorrow.

The fun/emotional aspects of the scanner made it easier for children to hold still during the procedure which in turn prevented doctors from having to repeat the scan.

This resulted in less need for anesthesiologists, and more patients getting scanned each day, positively impacting business outcomes.

My latest User Defender podcast superguest Joe Johnston, talks a lot about empathy, and curiosity in his inspiring episode. He said:

“‘Why’ is a great tool no matter what the situation you’re in. You’re gonna find out a lot about the individual, but also about the project.”

In Closing

Though we don’t all have the serendipity to find ourselves currently in an environment where we can innovate upon an important medical device that the lives and emotions of children literally depend upon–we do all have the ability to approach everything we put out into the world with that same passion and empathy that Doug Dietz had in his life-changing passion project.

I had this epiphany recently while driving to work that nearly made me pull over on the busy highway.

What if I approached anything, and everything I designed, like it could be the last. Because, you know what…it very well could be.

Gives a whole new perspective to that trivial login or landing page.

That seemingly trivial project, could very well be the stepping stone to the next Adventure Series that radically impacts the lives of the precious humans we designed for.

Who knows, the next time someone asks this question:

When was the last time you saw a designer break down into tears when talking about the product they created to make life better for others?

It may be you and me who comes to mind first.

If you found value in this article, would you help other designers find it too by giving this a huge round of 👏?



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Jason Ogle

Jason Ogle

Host of User Defenders: Podcast. Human. Designer. Story-Catcher. Deep-Diver. Husband + Father x 7. Has a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe.