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Breaking down emotional barriers through design

Deana McDonagh, industrial design professor and Beckman part-time faculty member in the Human Perception and Performance Group, merges empathic design with scientific and technological advances. 

Published on March 10, 2015

As you read this you may be sitting in a chair at your desk, which serves a functional purpose. But do you often consider how the shape of the chair affects your posture and your mood? Or how the space between your chair and your desk helps or hinders your work?

How we emotionally and physically interact with design—from objects to spaces to services—is the subject of Deana McDonagh’s research. At the Beckman Institute, she encourages scientists to look at what they’re creating and ask, “Who is going to use this, and how can I make it easier for them to use it? How can I make them feel good about using this?”

McDonagh, a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, has explored the relationship between products and users, a field known as empathic design, since 1996.  

“Empathic design responds to the functional and emotional needs of the people that your device, your environment, your service, is aiming to serve,” explains McDonagh. “Empathic design acknowledges its users and provides subtle but very secure ways for somebody to live independently for longer.”

A device as seemingly simple and universal as a button provides an empathic design issue for McDonagh to think about.     

“Buttons are okay for many people, but what about people with arthritis?” McDonagh said. “Buttons are hard to manage for someone with arthritis. If something like a button, zipper, or difficult food packaging continually interrupts your day because you can’t manage it, it breaks your workflow, and that disruption can lead to frustration. It can chip away at your confidence over the long term. 

“Then over time, your choices become reduced, and you can’t access the food, clothes, or whatever else you once loved, and your quality of life diminishes. It’s important to ensure the devices, tools, and products that we rely upon to help us complete tasks are doing just that—helping.”

What designers bring is a different perspective, and they try to foresee the unforeseeable challenges, so technology is introduced without any psychological barriers. It’s at the intersection of science and the lived experience. How can we bridge it so our products and technologies are applied in a way that people really want to have on their person, in their bodies, and in their homes? - Deana McDonagh

McDonagh examines these sorts of issues when assessing the usability of a new product or space at the Beckman Institute. One project she has worked on is the redesign of Beckman faculty member Stephen Boppart’s lab. Boppart develops optical imaging technologies and tests them on participants in his lab. But his lab doesn’t look like a typical scientific lab. McDonagh based the design of the space on a doctor’s office, yet relied on warm colors and pleasant furnishings to make the room feel less clinical and more comforting.

“I looked at the emotional side of going to visit a doctor,” said McDonagh. “It makes people nervous. But if patients are calmer, they’re going to have a more productive conversation, and they’re going to listen and hear more. So I opened a dialogue about how the texture and colors flow in the room to make it more inviting, and what type of furniture will be comfortable for all shapes and sizes to sit on.

“Good design means people should walk into the room and not have to think about where to go. They should feel at ease in their surroundings. Good design remains unnoticed as it supports our actions and makes us feel empowered.” 

Boppart has sought McDonagh’s guidance in not only his lab space, but also in the design of his imaging devices. 

“Deana has elevated the importance of design and functionality in our technological development of medical devices and even in the environment in which these are used. Because medical devices and our healthcare environments have such a direct humanistic and personal influence, Deana’s insights and contributions have helped to erode the boundaries that can sometimes exist between a personal patient-doctor encounter and the new technology that often confronts them,” said Boppart. “Deana and her students have helped integrate empathic design from the start in our development of novel optical imaging instruments, as well as in the design and construction of a new ‘clinical’ laboratory space for investigating the delivery of healthcare with new technology.”

Beckman faculty member John Rogers and his group have been leading research in sensors that adhere to the body like a temporary tattoo, and can detect various physiological markers. McDonagh is looking forward to providing guidance on the usability of his various wearable technologies by examining how users would interact with the product in a real-world environment. 

“What designers bring is a different perspective, and they try to foresee the unforeseeable challenges, so technology is introduced without any psychological barriers,” McDonagh said. “It’s at the intersection of science and the lived experience. How can we bridge it so our products and technologies are applied in a way that people really want to have on their person, in their bodies, and in their homes?”

In addition to her work with faculty, McDonagh is also engaged with her students. She recently established the Disability + Relevant Design course (ARTD 299/499), which is the only one of its type in the world. It brings students with physical disabilities, visible and nonvisible, together with designers, engineers, and computer scientists, to imagine products, spaces, and services that would make the world easier and better for all types of people.

She is the entrepreneurial designer in residence at the University of Illinois Research Park and at the start-up companies in the technology incubator at EnterpriseWorks. Her goal is to help entrepreneurs move designs from idea to product development that will make sense to consumers. 

“This community is a remarkable oasis for entrepreneurship and start-up companies. The research results in brilliant technology, and then we say, ‘Hold on a minute, let’s just look at the context of who you’re designing for,’ ” McDonagh said. “So I’ve had the pleasure of working with companies at the Research Park, helping student groups that are beginning to move into product development, helping them see their context from another perspective.”

It is through this involvement that McDonagh was recently nominated for an Advocacy Award for the Innovation Celebration, a collaboration among the University of Illinois, Parkland College, and the community, recognizing local innovation and entrepreneurial excellence.

McDonagh is also on the Edison Awards Nominations Review Committee, a position that enables her to see cutting-edge technology in a whole range of fields, and select winners for new or innovative technology awards.

“The joy of that is I’m an industrial designer, and being a part of the conversation about product design wouldn’t necessarily have happened 10 years ago,” McDonagh said. “People have become more aware of how product design impacts the usefulness of technology and its importance in satisfying needs beyond the functional.”

At the university, McDonagh hopes to continue collaborations with various groups at Beckman in order to create more intuitive and useful designs.

“I couldn’t do what I do without being here at Beckman. I tell people that when I’m here, I’m having a good day. It’s my happy place,” McDonagh said.

In this article

  • Deana C. McDonagh
    Deana C. McDonagh's directory photo.