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How to Build Empathy in Students with Universal Design Principles

This professor is an expert on human-centered design, but her hidden talent lies in teaching her students radical empathy for each other and their end users.


Cyndi Wiley, PhD

Associate Professor of Art and Design, Grand View University

PhD in Human Computer Interaction, MFA in Graphic Design, BA in Art with an emphasis on Graphic Design and minor in Art History

To encourage students in her Interactive Design course to consider the needs of every kind of end user—including those with hearing, vision, dexterity, or mental health issues—Cyndi Wiley, PhD, shares with them a story of her own battle with severe anxiety.

“Before grad school, I’d have panic attacks going out or going to the grocery store. I share with my students today … how I liked [going to the self-checkout lane] better than going to a person, and I talk about my journey of going to therapy and getting medication.”

By being open and vulnerable with her students, Wiley says she is able to forge a more genuine connection with them—and make a stronger case for the importance of accessibility in design. “The biggest thing I want students to take away from my class,” she says, “is to view things outside of their own lens. Really be able to step into someone else’s shoes, have empathy for others, and get out of their own heads and into somebody else’s experience. You may or may not know [whether an end user] has a disability, [but] designing things with that in mind is good design for everybody.”

Challenge: A tendency to design prototypes in a vacuum

According to Wiley, many designers have what she calls a “power over” dynamic in terms of how they view the end user. “Historically, designers have [thought], ‘I’m going to design this [for users], and it’s going to work and they’re going to love it because I studied [design] in school.’ And it doesn’t work!” she exclaims.

That is because designers simply cannot know what will work for an end user if they never ask that person (or a sample group similar to the target audience) to share their needs, wishes, and preferences—what works and what does not. Wiley adds that she understands why designers think this way, because she herself had fallen into the same pattern while studying for her bachelor’s degree. (More on that later, along with details on how and why her work has transformed to be more inclusive.)

Innovation: Refocusing students on “human-centered” design

Wiley teaches her students the value of “power sharing” (that is, bringing the end user into the conversation prior to and during the design process) versus “power over” when creating a prototype. This strategy is sometimes called empathic, universal, or inclusive design by those in the field of design thinking, but Wiley refers to it in a manner that hits home in a more personal way: “I prefer the term human-centered design over user-centered design, because it’s a little more personal,” says Wiley. “I use empathy exercises developed by IDEO [a global design company] as a way to approach finding problems.”

She places emphasis on finding problems, not just their solutions, so students can “really be able to feel” the pain points of technology that others might deal with. By purposefully having her students sit down and watch someone use the design they created, it “starts to shift the power differential. Hearing critical feedback from that user, whether it’s a friend, family member, or peer, and watching them maybe struggle with their design, makes [students] better designers and is really crucial to their learning process.” Armed with new feedback, the students then go back to the drawing board to incorporate the changes.


Course: ARTS 245 Interactive Design 1
Frequency: Two 80-minute class meetings per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 15–20 students
Course description: Essential themes, techniques, and the foundations of web and interactive design are explored. Students will create simple websites and other interactive documents.
In her own words: “This course covers the basics of human-centered design. Initially students are a little wary of taking this course, because [while] they’re good with [using] technology, creating it seems intimidating. But once they get into it and realize what interactive design, UX [user experience] design, inclusive design, and accessibility really are, they actually really enjoy it.”

ARTS 245 Interactive Design 1

See materials

Lesson: Emphasizing the human in human-centered design

As mentioned earlier, Wiley understands the tendency to want to design based upon our own world view and aesthetics. To demonstrate the difference between this and human-centered “universal design,” Wiley shows students some of her own graphic design work from her undergraduate studies, when she was “uninformed” and did not design with the end user in mind.

Then she shows them the work she has done since graduate school, during which she learned about Relational-Cultural Theory. “RCT is a psychological theory developed collaboratively in the 1970s by a group of women wanting to better understand relationships and power dynamics,” she explains. “It allows for growth through conflict and a path of breaking down assumptions that marginalize underrepresented persons—people of color, women, LGBTQ+, elderly, immigrants, non-Christians, and many others. I use RCT as the basis of human-centered design to learn how to share power with others.”

Wiley says that her students can see a significant shift, with her later work catering not only to every type of user but also reflecting themes of social justice and activism. This is especially eye-opening for budding designers who previously thought the field was limited only to marketing and advertising. “[Design is] so much broader than that,” she insists.

Here are some exercises Wiley uses to build empathy in her design students:

Make accommodations in your teaching style

Wiley always begins her class with a Rubik’s Cube exercise: She gives her students 10 minutes to solve the cube, explaining first that they are free to search the internet for instructions, get help from a neighbor, watch a video, or solve it on their own. The first person to solve it gets $20. “One time I had two students solve it at the same time, so I was out $40,” she laughs.

Wiley says the Rubik’s Cube exercise also helps her ascertain how students work, providing a window into their learning preferences (verbal instructions, solo reading, peer learning, and so on), as well as any accessibility issues. This is particularly helpful for students who have not asked outright for any special learning accommodations. Wiley then tailors her lessons accordingly, thereby demonstrating the value of keeping accessibility front of mind.

Some of her accommodations, she adds, are always part of her teaching strategy. For instance, she adds captions to all of her online lectures, shares TED talks (all of which are captioned, short, and well made), and provides a variety of other learning resources and readings that are “good quality and accessible from the beginning.”

Build empathy with role-playing exercises

Wiley has students partake in empathy exercises that simulate what it is like to have different abilities. For instance, she has them operate a touch screen, copier, and/or vending machine while wearing “simulation gloves” (standard hardware store gloves, in her classes), which create limitations in hand movement. “When students wear the gloves, they might emulate someone who has arthritis or has had a stroke and can’t grasp something or use a touch screen that well,” she says.

In another exercise, Wiley has students with normal vision wear prescription glasses to simulate low vision. If a student has low vision or is legally blind, he or she may or may not disclose this to peers, but when they have chosen to do so, Wiley has found it to be a good barrier-breaker that helps everyone in the class think more deeply about how they will design future projects.

Investigate a relatable example

The next exercise is for students to assess the university’s intranet site. It is no secret that many college (and company) intranet sites—generally used for internal communications, registering for classes, and financial transactions—have cumbersome user experiences. Wiley’s students evaluate and deconstruct their school’s intranet site, assessing navigation with a critical eye. They have found the system to be document-heavy and its navigation difficult for students who relied solely on screen readers or keyboards. “Navigating the intranet system was a problem that I was seeing with students—all of our students. They had a hard time with it,” says Wiley. (See “Outcomes,” below, to learn how Wiley’s first iteration of this exercise impacted the university and its intranet design.)

Similarly, in an exercise she calls Good, Bad, and Ugly, Wiley has students find a really well-designed app (good), an app that is passable (bad), and an app that works well but is visually unappealing (ugly). Students are required to use terminology from their readings in their brief evaluations of the three apps.

Coach students on how to observe others

Another assignment the students complete is an IDEO exercise called Fly on the Wall. Students go to a crowded place to observe people in their natural habitat, so to speak. They begin in the cafeteria, watching whom people sit with—whether they are alone or drawn to certain cliques. Then they go to an off-campus location, such as to the grocery store, where they can observe people using the self-checkout register and see where struggles arise. (See “The Fly on the Wall Assignment,” inset, to learn how Wiley teaches them how to be good—and unobtrusive—observers.) Afterward, the class discusses their findings and how they can apply them to the design process.

Offer opportunities for improvement

When it comes to grading, Wiley shows rather than tells. If a student really misses the mark on an assignment, she gives him or her the opportunity to redo it—either with her guidance or with the mentorship of a classmate. Even just 5 minutes of help goes a long way for a struggling student to see how a counterpart excels at the assignment.

Wiley also has the whole class review a previous (anonymous) student’s work. She never shows a perfect example; if the assignment got a C grade, she will ask, “Why do you think that is?” This helps students better understand her grading rubric and how their own work might be evaluated.

The Fly on the Wall assignment: Lessons learned

Through her own trial and error, Wiley figured out that it is imperative to talk about how to be a good observer before sending students out to complete the Fly on the Wall assignment. The first time she sent students out as observers, she split them into groups and sent each group to observe the use of one of these:

  • Self-checkout aisles at a grocery store
  • Coca-Cola Freestyle machines at a fast-food restaurant
  • Self-checkout services at a public library
  • A self-pay Ziosk Aurizon tablet at Chili’s Grill & Bar

At the following class meeting when students shared their notes, Wiley learned that some students were “in the way” and others spoke directly with people, rather than just watching them. As a result, she now dedicates a class period to discussing what to do (and not do) as an observer.

“The first thing I tell them is, ‘Don’t be a creeper!’” Wiley says, laughing. “You need to respect people [as you watch them], not get in their way or in their business, and not ask intrusive questions.”

Next, the whole class takes a trip to the school’s cafeteria, where Wiley takes notes (in a notebook or on her cell phone) as an example for her students to follow. Students who do not take their own notes during the exercise will jot down their observations as soon as they return to the classroom. Then Wiley differentiates between the merits of using a notebook versus a cell phone, based on the location. For example, in a grocery store, it would be unnatural to write in a notebook, but by using a phone they would just appear to be texting. In a coffee shop or library, on the other hand, writing in a notebook would be perfectly natural. The key, she explains, is to be discreet.


Wiley’s approach in cultivating radical empathy in her students has not come without some pushback. “When a person in my department found out I was [talking to students about] my experience with anxiety, she said I shouldn’t have shared [such] personal information with them,” says Wiley. The following semester, Wiley followed her colleague’s advice and withheld sharing her personal experience with the class. However, doing so felt less “authentic” to her. “We weren’t able to go as far because I felt like I was holding back and not fully being myself,” she says. So, the semester after that, Wiley decided to go with her instincts and share information that she felt was appropriate and would relate directly to the material being covered in class. “When students have someone in authority share with them their experience of having a disability, the connection becomes more meaningful,” she says.


When Wiley first led an exercise in which students assessed the “ease of use” of their college’s intranet site, the experience was so impactful that they decided to petition the student government to make the site more accessible. “I wasn’t planning for it to happen, but the students saw it as an issue and wanted to do something about it,” she says proudly.

The university also relaunched its external website last year, and one of her former students was on the committee with faculty and staff to help with usability studies, user experience, and accessibility. “They talked with some administrators and raised awareness. We’re starting to develop [changes to the sites] that are in compliance with Sections 508 and 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973]. So their work has been really integral to that happening.”

Student feedback

The feedback Wiley has received from students has been overwhelmingly positive. Among their remarks:

“Dr. Wiley is fantastic … [I] learned a lot in this class. Never actually thought I’d code anything in my life.”

“I learned more in one year as a returning student in the UX program, than I learned in four years as an undergraduate.”