Fostering Innovations by Contextual Empathic Design

Placeholder Show Content



This thesis describes the results of a study exploring how user backgrounds can systematically be considered in design activities.

In human-centered engineering design, understanding what users desire and need is key for creating innovative solutions. Uncovering insights of users is needed as a backbone to provide the best possible solution for real customer needs. In this process, it is important to consider the background of users such as their culture, gender, education, or socio-economic class. This thesis is based on a multiple case study of eleven student projects sampled within the past four years of the three-quarter master's level engineering design course ME310 at Stanford University. First, mid- and end-of project reports ranging from 50 to 250 pages were coded from seven projects, chosen after a teaching team session in which the projects were ranked. Four high-performing and three low-performing projects, in which people were seen highly pertinent to the design brief, were chosen for the analysis. A systematic comparison of the methods and strategies reported in each project was performed. Second, four ongoing projects from 2016 were chosen for further study in which people played a large part in the design brief. Students from these four projects were interviewed mid-course on how and why they considered user backgrounds. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis, coding each interview for the reported problems and influences for considerations regarding user backgrounds.

The analysis revealed that challenges in considering user backgrounds occur on three different levels: First, teams are not aware of the background of the user as they do not consciously think about it (lack of awareness). Second, they do not understand the user background, even if they are aware of it (lack of empathy). Third, some teams are aware of the background and understand it but do not integrate the knowledge into the design (lack of integration). Especially methods with direct user contact and ones, in which designers immerse themselves in the user perspective are effective as hereby designers rely less on stereotypes and the empathic process is facilitated

These layers were used as a structure for the development of method cards called “Contextual Empathic Design”. “Methods of Discovery” help to create an awareness for user backgrounds. “Methods of Enlightenment” support the process of understanding the backgrounds and “Methods of Integration” help designers to integrate their insights in the solution. The methods created in this research are empirically connected to successful patterns in real design projects and address the most frequent, empirically identified impediments for including peopleness in design. They should enable an advanced human-centered design process that increases the desirability of products by harnessing the potential of background characteristics to better understand users, inform design decisions, and hence foster innovations.


Type of resource text
Date created September 4, 2017
Date modified February 6, 2023
Publication date May 7, 2018


Author von Unold, Benedikt
Thesis advisor Böhmer, Annette
Advisor Sheppard, Sheri


Subject design thinking
Subject ME310
Subject product development
Subject user studies
Genre Text
Genre Thesis

Bibliographic information

Access conditions

Use and reproduction
User agrees that, where applicable, content will not be used to identify or to otherwise infringe the privacy or confidentiality rights of individuals. Content distributed via the Stanford Digital Repository may be subject to additional license and use restrictions applied by the depositor.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Zero v1.0 Universal license (CC0).

Preferred citation

Preferred citation
von Unold, Benedikt . (2017). Fostering Innovations by Contextual Empathic Design. Stanford Digital Repository. Available at:


Contact information

Also listed in

Loading usage metrics...