Design with Empathy

Learning patience and rigor pays off for one UX Boot Camp student, and ultimately the Edible Schoolyard Project.

Guest Post by Mark Lancaster, Cooper UX Boot Camp student

This October, at the UX Boot Camp, we were charged with creating a design solution for the Edible Schoolyard Project (ESY Project). The ESY Project is an integrated school nutrition program that gives students an opportunity to learn a variety of life skills by extending the classroom into the kitchen and garden. Starting and running a local program is financially and logistically difficult; not only is money, land, and equipment needed, but also skilled instructors, community support, and a comprehensive curriculum. The ESY Project needed a solution that would assist worldwide programs with their growth and resource development. We had 4 days to come up with a design concept. “Boot Camp”, as it turns out, is a decent description.

UxchickenPictured from L to R: Eric Seiberling, Doug Mays, Mary Desmond, Mark Lancaster, and Frances James

The first two days we spent a healthy amount of time researching and developing what psychologists call behavioral profiles or “personas“. I had made personas before in my design career, but not nearly to the extent and depth that Cooper’s Kendra Shimmell coached us. At times, I honestly thought, “Alright, enough about personas, we need to start drawing up some solutions!” Instead of jumping into drawing screens, we were pushed to look into the psyche of each persona and at times almost perform method acting; trying to understand the problem from the point of view of the persona. It was this intense concentration on understanding the situation from the perspective of the people involved that eventually led our group to create the narrative of Jordan; a 19 year old alumni of the ESY Project.

Jordan was a troubled 12-year-old student who constantly struggled in school, but through ESY Project he found his confidence and self worth as he developed proficiency in cooking, and received positive reinforcement for his participation in class. A few years later, now in high school, he decides he wants to give back to the program that gave him confidence early on and stay connected with ESY Project. It was this perspective on the persona of Jordan that helped us identify a solution for ESY Project: a system of reciprocity.


Reciprocity should be the goal of any network, community, or organization. For the ESY Project, reciprocity means creating an alumni network that fosters involvement after a student has grown up. The end goal is for former students (Jordan, in this case) to become the volunteers and perpetuators of the program, giving back and “growing it forward”. After all, who better than former students to fill the shoes of teachers and volunteers? Instead of focusing on a design solution for current teachers, we designed a service that would benefit the organization by focusing on the alumni and supporting the future of the movement. After coming to this idea as a group, we were able to mock up the entire system in a matter of hours, contrary to my initial fears.

What I learned is that User Experience (UX) is not just the way a person feels as they use your website or application; it’s far, far more than that. Sure, we can make applications that are “fun,” “easy to use,” (insert personal favorite buzz word here), but that perspective limits UX to shallow interactions and aesthetics, failing to address the deeper needs of the people using them. User Experience should solve systemic problems that your client may not even know exist. And the only way you will be able to do this is if you design with empathy for the people and culture for whom you’re creating a solution.

The Editors

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