Building Empathy: Using Design Thinking to Understand Communities

by Carrie Brown @brizzyc 

“Your first challenge, if you choose to accept it: Learn the techniques of design thinking to better understand your communities’ needs and how you can develop products and services that will help them solve problems.”

This was how we launched our Community Engagement course in the Social Journalism program at CUNY. Our goal is to explore a number of different strategies from outside traditional journalism for listening to communities.

Design thinking originates with the d School at Stanford and is now widely practiced in a variety of different industries. I was lucky enough to learn about it at the Memphis Innovation Bootcamp and practice it at the Online News Association’s dCamp: Mobile in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

design thinking slide

We began with an in-class exercise that runs students through the basic steps (shown above) quickly, working with each other.

Design thinking involves prototyping aka art projects
Design thinking involves prototyping aka art projects
See how much fun they are having?!? (Okay, they *may* have just been humoring us)
See how much fun they are having?!? (Okay, they *may* have just been humoring us)

So, after finishing the exercise and reflecting on the process, it was time to put design thinking in action in the “real world.” The students next task:

A Real Design Challenge: Improving the Daily Commute*

  • How do you improve the daily commute?
  • What would make the perfect commute? If you couldn’t change the time spent commuting, what would make the experience better?
  • We know that many commuters learn about the news  by listening/reading on their way to school or work. How could we boost that number? How can we improve that experience for them?

*Shout-out to my wonderful former student at the University of Memphis, Burton Bridges, who came up with this idea.

Design thinking gurus preach that learning design thinking should always involve tackling a challenge that is “real.” This one most definitely is. Commuting in New York is something nearly everyone experiences, and there is often no shortage of, er, emotion around it, regardless of the mode of transportation one may use.  Even better, my co-prof Jeff Jarvis is in the early stages of talking to folks at and Waze to think about ways to serve the commuter community, so the ideas students come up with in the process will be useful in a very concrete way.

Step one in the design thinking process is empathy: Using careful observation and interviews, developing a personal understanding of your audience/users’ experiences. So this week, students headed to Penn Station and other New Jersey commuter hubs to talk to people. Can’t wait to hear about what they found.







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