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Updated: May 16, 2023

People ignore designs that ignore people. Frank Chimero

To best support our people to learn and improve, we need to put them at the center of that effort and to anticipate how the differences between our learners – aka learner variability – will show up in the learning. Creating and supporting environments that embrace variability requires empathy, the understanding and sensitivity to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others.[i]

We need empathy to best know our learners, their goals, their needs, their challenges, and how they will be affected by the context in which they hope to learn. Empathy is a core component of design thinking, a methodology to help designers of all types adopt a human-centered approach to solving problems in ways that are desirable, feasible, and economically viable.[ii] According to IDEO, leaders in design thinking, taking this human-centered approach is more than a moral question; it’s a strategic advantage. “When companies allow a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them—and transform their work, their teams, and even their organization at large—they unlock the creative capacity for innovation.”[iii]

The environments in which people learn, whether formal, social, or in the flow of work, are emotional, intellectual, and physical spaces that can be designed for optimum learning. Every element, including the messages, the materials, the cleanliness of the space, the temperature of the room, and more, creates the context and the conditions for learning. That’s our canvas, and we can create a wonderful scene for all kinds of learners.

Remember that this scene is not for us, but for others, for people who will vary from us and each other, as all people do. The best way to understand what they need is to consider what it’s like to be someone other than yourself.

So how do we enhance our empathy? Here are three strategies you can employ immediately

  1. Go-And-See: Go where the learning is happening. Watch what is happening, and what’s not happening. What’s the emotional climate, the vibe? What’s the pace at which information is presenting itself? Is it slow, frenetic, or somewhere in between? Who’s doing the work, what are they doing, and what results are they getting? Go at different times, during different activities, and with different learners. If at all possible, see what it’s like to put the intended learning into practice and how it’s measured in the field.

  2. Ask-And-Listen: Enlist diverse people and empower them to communicate their needs, ideas, and challenges when encountering the various learning environments. These user experts can tell you exactly what it’s like to be them in specific contexts. Locate extreme users, people with the greatest degrees of need related to your problem, allowing you to understand the degree of flexibility and support needed in the eventual design in order to support all your learners.

  3. Do-It-Yourself: Engage in the learning and the doing of something new; not necessarily what you are going to help others learn, just something new to you – how to use a new tool, a different design process, etc. How does it feel to wrestle with a new way of doing things? What do you need to make the learning valuable and increase your expectations of success?

Empathy is key for universally designing and delivering learning environments that embrace variability. It also goes hand in hand with last week’s topic – ownership. Empathy informs our ownership, allowing us to better partner with our learners through enhanced understanding. So, make sure to keep expanding your perspective and stay mindful of your biases – your audience will notice and appreciate your efforts to consider their individual needs, talents, strengths, and challenges.

James McKenna

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[i] “Empathy.” Merriam-Webster Online,

[ii] IDEO, What Is Design Thinking? Accessed 1 Aug. 2020.

[iii] Battarbee, Katja, et al. Empathy on the Edge: Scaling and Sustaining a Human-Centered Approach in the Evolving Practice of Design. IDEO, 2014, p.1


Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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