Empathy 101

By Bridget Meeds

New course integrates design thinking with engineering.

Swarms of excited children ran through the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum in Ithaca, one cold November Saturday afternoon. Along with the usual hands-on exhibits, they and their parents massed around stations stocked with cool new gadgets. 

At one table, a mother and son tossed a wiggling ball back and forth, laughing. At another, a brother and sister built a mini-blanket fort with a hinged quilt. Girls tried out a projector that beamed their drawings on the ceiling; boys oohed and ahhhed over an interactive gaming system that encourages competitive play using two bicycles and radio signals, and a dad in a baseball cap tried out an electronic kitchen handle with a spatula attachment. 

Were these the latest holiday season must-haves from the shelves of a big box retailer? Not quite yet. Each product was a prototype, stemming from an original idea and created from scratch by a team of Cornell Engineering students in “Innovative Product Design via Digital Manufacturing,” a popular upper-level class taught by Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Sirietta Simoncini, a lecturer in systems engineering.

Shepherd, who  joined Cornell in 2013, created the course to teach a modern manufacturing process that combines mechanical engineering with design thinking. He and Simoncini call their theory “design and systems thinking.” Before teaching at Cornell, Shepherd completed a post-doc at Harvard University and started his own company, drawing on his M.B.A. and Ph.D. in materials science. Simoncini is an architect from Italy who, in addition to teaching at Cornell, has taught as a design thinking coach at many universities, including Stanford’s world-renowned Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the d.school.  

“I felt it was important for the College of Engineering to have an open design class,” says Shepherd, “so that instead of being told exactly what they are supposed to build and how to build it, the students are encouraged instead to come up with their own idea, build it, and sharpen it into a realistic product.” 

The course is part of a larger trend at the college and in engineering education in general, led by faculty who are excited about the vast disruptive potential that design thinking and additive manufacturing processes, such as 3D printers, can offer. 

The class began in an untraditional way, with the teachers asking the students to design products using techniques more commonly associated with anthropology or social work than engineering. “The broad challenge for the students was to redesign the family experience,” says Simoncini. “Design thinking starts with empathy.”

Empathy, a word not usually associated with engineers, is at the core of the process Shepherd and Simoncini teach. Rather than beginning with an idea, the teams of students, carefully created with a mix of undergraduate and graduate students (including some distance learners) worked together to embed themselves in families. There, they observed and interacted with the parents and children, using empathy to define problems faced by the families as their first step.  

“This is ethnographic fieldwork,” says Simoncini. “We train the students how to ask the right questions. We wanted them to learn to be a kind of anthropologist of the family, to begin without biases. This is often the hardest part of the process for them, because they have never been asked to do this before.”

When the teams returned and “unpacked” their observations, they noted that families needed help keeping their homes neat, engaging their children in chores, putting down devices, and playing together.

After pinpointing the problems, the teams move into the middle phase of the process, a lengthy brainstorming phase designed to produce hundreds of ideas. They then winnowed them based on two criteria, desirability and feasibility. “The intersection of something that is desirable and feasible—this is what we call innovation,” says Simoncini. 

After the teams settled on their final idea, they moved into the last phase, prototyping. First they threw together rapid prototypes using basic materials—tinker toys, pipe cleaners, cardboard—and later, began making computer designs and using the 3D printers and laser cutters.  

Continuous feedback from peers, faculty, industry advisers, and end users is a crucial part of this design process, as is prototyping. Shepherd explains that prototypes are essential for communicating the nature of your idea to users, and an important part of the course is mastering the skills required for rapid prototyping. “The closer you can get your prototype to look like the end goal, the higher quality feedback you get, and the better your feedback, the more useful your design iterations are,” he notes. 

Shepherd also emphasizes the commercialization of the products, requiring students to investigate if they are modifying existing intellectual property or creating something new. “The goal is for them to develop unique intellectual property,” he says.  

A student team from last year’s class has taken a step toward commercialization, incorporating themselves to create and market the “Polar Chiller,” a counter-top personal beverage cooling device using proprietary technology. 

One fall 2014 class member, Michael G. Walsh ’14 MAE, now a systems engineering graduate student focusing on product development and design, was a member of Team Produck, which invented something that they call the “QuiltBuilt,” a fabric-covered, hinged play mat that children can make into their own structures. Kids seem to love playing with it; parents will no doubt appreciate that it is easy to fold and store. 

“My team observed families that have a lot of kids and a lot of work to do,” says Walsh. “The kids were playing with toys, making a mess and not cleaning up after themselves, and parents were stressed out trying to keep the house clean.” 

Legos, they noticed, were a particularly asymmetric product in terms of meeting the needs of a family—kids totally love them, and parents universally hate having all those little pieces underfoot, needing to be picked up. (In 2011, SFGate named Lego one of “the five worst toys to step on in the middle of the night” and the Internet abounds with tales of parents needing stitches from late night Lego encounters.)

From their observation, Walsh’s team created the idea of an “anti-Lego”—a flexible building toy that was all in one piece. Through the iterative process, they eventually settled on the QuiltBuilt. 

“At the Sciencenter Demo Day, we had a good number of kids and parents who gave us feedback,” says Walsh. “We took that and used it in our redesign process. Importantly, we learned that younger kids didn’t really know how to play with the QuiltBuilt, but kids older than ten were really intuitive with it immediately. It was pretty cool to see because now we can focus in on what age demographic we can market to best.”

Harolyn Phillips M.Eng.’15, a strategy analyst at The Boeing Company in Washington, D.C., took the course as a distance learning student. She participated in the class via a “Synthia”—a computer screen mounted on a person-sized frame connected to Skype, giving her a substantive physical presence in group discussions. 

Phillips was a member of Team OCCAM, which developed the Cook-E product concept, an electronic kitchen tool designed to help children cook with their parents. In her case, Phillips observed a blended family (each partner bringing children to the relationship from a previous marriage) and noted that their biggest need was to find shared activities that could be used to create bonds. 

“My team looked to leverage differences, overcome barriers, and foster closeness,” said Phillips. With those goals in mind, they decided to focus on making cooking an exciting activity for everyone in the family. 

“The Cook-E is going to make it easier to get kids into the kitchen. It will have some cool functionalities which we’re still exploring,” she explains. “The handle will have different attachments, such as a spatula, and the spatula might have a temperature sensor that changes color to help children understand when food is cooked to the correct temperature.”

Coming from a business background, Phillips is excited about the market longevity of the Smart Handle, as the manufacturer could keep producing new attachments for it. More importantly, she is grateful to have learned so much about this design method. “The whole purpose of what we learned is to develop products built around the needs of the person,” she notes.  

“Engineers, most of the time they are given a problem to solve, and they start solving the problem,” says Simoncini. “But it is not always clear if that was the right question to answer. We teach them how to start with a completely fresh mind without knowing what the solution is, and then define the problem.”

“This course has been the most demanding of all my graduate courses,” says Harolyn, citing the intense time commitment required for the observation and brainstorming portions of the process. “But as I look to advance into program management at Boeing, it probably has been the most relevant.”

Walsh, who will use these techniques again in a spring course focusing on traffic issues, found that the course resonates strongly with his values. “Design thinking matters,” he says. “You can go through a development phase for a product to make it as good as you possibly can but if you don’t do it with the right intention and enough market and design research, you could create an absolutely amazing product that no one will want. This process very efficiently helps you refine and strive towards a product that everyone is going to need and want.”

As the day at the Sciencenter wound down, tired children put on their warm coats and went home for their suppers while the students packed up their prototypes. They also brought home the myriad observations and conversations they had had with children and parents, ready to analyze. They had a few more weeks to work on these projects before the semester ended—products which could eventually end in a patent, commercial licensing, or a Kickstarter campaign—but that was not the final goal for Shepherd and Simoncini. 

“What matters,” says Shepherd, “is the process they are learning. They are performing it really well. Next year, we are going to have students work on assisted living devices. I am looking forward to a new set of students with a new set of ideas!”