Exploring personas as a method to foster empathy in student IT design teams

  • Maren Haag
  • Nicola MarsdenEmail author


Empathy is seen as essential for user-centered design and thus needs to be taken into consideration in design education. Personas are a design method that is meant to promote empathy with users and are also used to foster an empathic design approach in educational settings. Empathic involvement is considered to be particularly important to overcome egocentric approaches in design, i.e. to relate to users that are dissimilar to the design team. We explored the use of personas as proxies of similar or dissimilar users in a classroom design project phase in a qualitative study of eight student design workshops with personas as user representations. We found that establishing whether a persona was similar or dissimilar to the students played an important role and lead to empathy gaps regarding users that were considered old or less technically inclined. Showing empathy in the student teams was considered risky and perspective taking was limited by the social interaction amongst the team members. We propose that research of design education would benefit from differentiating the multiple aspects that are typically conjoined in the term ‘empathy’. Furthermore raising awareness for the mechanisms of empathy should be incorporated into design and engineering education rather than relying on automatic reactions and intuition.


Empathy Perspective taking User-centered design Human–computer interaction Personas Design literacy 



This work was funded in part by the Brigitte-Schlieben-Lange-Programm/Ministry of Science, Research, and Arts Baden-Württemberg, Germany; and in part by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Germany (BMBF) for the project “IT&me—Konzeption, Umsetzung und Evaluation eines modellhaften multimedialen Wissenspools in der IT-Expertinnenbildung unter Berücksichtigung unterschiedlicher Lebenssituationen und Lernstrategien”, FKZ 01FP1617. The responsibility for the content lies with the authors. We appreciate the helpful comments provided by the anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IT DepartmentHeilbronn UniversityHeilbronnGermany

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