Empathetic Engineers in Professional Practice

by Laura Patterson

Good design and good writing are, in many ways, invisible to the user.  If something is designed well, then the user is able to use it as intended without necessarily thinking about the design.  In order to achieve that invisible nature of good design in physical objects as well as documents, empathy is an important element in communication with one’s audience, whether it is a client, a colleague, or a community. 

While the concept of empathy might seem distant from engineering practice, it is a necessary skill set.  Yes, skill set.  In addition to the commonly recognized emotional elements of empathy, engineers can practice and learn empathy as a set of skills that make understanding and adapting to one’s audience more effective. This post will focus on adapting empathy skills from Hess and Fila’s [1] article on design that can also be applied to engineering communication in order to develop empathetic understanding.

Direct Observation 

In direct observation, the designer observes the user(s) in a real situation where they are using existing designs, or documents.  This observation allows the designer to understand how the user interacts with the design and perhaps notice things about that interaction that the user may not recognize consciously as significant to the design.

Empathy By Proxy

Another method of empathizing with the user is to discuss how the design is used by someone close to the direct user, such as a manager or special interest group, who has observed the user with the design in a real-world context.  Their observations adds an additional perspective of how the user interacts with the design, and the priorities that the design should address.


Of course, it is necessary for the designer to ask the user directly about their needs of the design.  This interaction gains insights from the user’s first-hand perspective on how they use the design, what they experience, and what they would like from it.


In addition to observing and consulting with the user and relevant stakeholders, projecting oneself as the user of the design helps the designer to understand and anticipate where issues may arise for the user.  Thinking through how you would like to use the design and the expectations of it can help anticipate challenges one may experience in general using the design. 


After the projection stage is complete, simulation is now imagining the user’s perspective using the design.  This is different from projection in that the designer must think beyond their desired experience with the design and take the knowledge gathered from direct observation, empathy by proxy, and interaction with the user to anticipate needs and challenges the user may have with the design.

By using these empathetic techniques to understand the user and their needs from different perspectives, the designer has a fuller picture of how they can use their expertise to meet the user(s)’ needs that user(s) may not be able to anticipate for themselves. These strategies are easily applied to the design of documents and presentations in addition to physical designs.

[1] Hess, Justin, L. & Fila, Nicholas, D. “The manifestation of empathy within design: Findings from a service-learning course” CoDesign. vol. 12, no. 1-2, pp. 93 – 111. 2016. 

Laura Patterson, Ph.D. is a tenured Senior Instructor of Technical and Professional Communication in the School of Engineering at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, BC, Canada.  She has taught technical communication to engineering students since 2002, and has been in her current position since 2007. She holds a Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University.