Compassion at the core of design

Designing a system for a target population is not straightforward. It requires a good understanding of the end users, of their needs, challenges and difficulties. When it comes to the design of a solution for supporting mental health, it can be hard to grasp what the targeted users (e.g. people living with anxiety) experience. Whereas we probably have an idea of what depression or anxiety look like (for example in terms of symptoms), it is unlikely that we know what it feels like, unless we have experienced it ourselves.

How can we create technologies that support vulnerable populations if we can only imagine how they feel?

Design processes targeting vulnerable populations need to integrate both theory and experience. However, if it is possible to experience how people with visual difficulties see by looking through distorted lenses, it is much harder to perceive the world through the eyes of a person living with depression. That is why we think that compassion has a key role to play in the design process.

Designed by humans …

It is a common idea that we, as designers, should try to stay objective and put aside our feelings for fear of bias, and thus influencing our design. Nevertheless, if a system seems incredibly demanding or inappropriate to us, why would end users accept it and engage with it?

The first person experience approach supports the idea that the designer’s feeling and subjectivity should have a full part to play in the design process. Arguing that designers should be doing and experiencing while designing, this approach pushes designers to try out what they are creating on themselves first and to use this experience to bring more compassion in their design.

… for humans

When designing for a population that experiences mental health difficulties, we must avoid reducing these persons to “depressive” or “bipolar” people. Although their difficulties may be a big part of their lives, their personalities and desires need to be differentiated from the disorder. Individuals vary a lot in their history, attitude and acceptance of technology, especially when it comes to mental health. We should not design as if the end users are predictable and all the same but embrace the fact that they are constantly evolving and that, hopefully, our technology is going to influence positively their journey.

Flexible designs that learn from users (e.g. with Machine Learning) and adapt their behaviour are already helping the emergence of personalized technologies. However, the danger is that these systems will provide more impersonal user experiences. By rethinking the way we conduct design and bringing more compassion to our practices, we can have a better understanding of vulnerable populations that will be reflected more in technology. Finally, putting the human lived experience at the core of the design process is a step forward towards technologies that are more understanding and engaging for humans.


This article is by AffecTech researcher Camille Nadal  of Trinity College Dublin and was created following AffecTech’s 2018 training event in Stockholm, Sweden, where compassion in design was featured. The research has been conducted as part of the AffecTech Marie Curie Innovative Training Network. AffecTech is funded by the European Commission and dedicated to delivering effective low-cost self-help technologies to help sufferers of affective health conditions such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders.