Empathy Tools; the next step in testing usability?

PUBLISHED 18th May 2018

Inclusive design in recent years has become more and more popular, due mainly to an increasing aged population and a desire to create a product that is suitable for all.

The British Standards Institute defined inclusive design as:

“The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible … without the need for special adaptation or specialised design.” (1).

It is a greatly important design principle not only to broaden the target market available but to produce a product that is more sustainable for the business and environment. Inclusiveness is a philosophy medical device companies have had to think about from the start given that in most cases the medical device could be used by a variety of people and user types each with different physical capabilities and needs.

With an increase in inclusive design, there has become an increase in empathy tools designed to simulate certain conditions such as aged hands or rheumatoid arthritis by restricting motion and function. Empathy tools are intended to help develop empathy with users as well as an understanding of their capabilities. The simulation tools are advertised to be used throughout the design process from understanding the customer needs through to testing the concept and verifying the usability of the device (2).

But can simulation tools really compare to actual users?
Can you determine the usability of a product just through physical limitations?

There are no studies currently that verify the actual effectiveness of the devices at simulating specific capabilities such as aged hands. Though cited as a useful tool for inclusive design, no papers could be found that compared simulation devices against normative characteristic data and further to this there are no studies that compare the various empathy tools against each other and so no qualitative data to determine which tool is best.

It’s an intriguing concept to ‘wear a user’s disability’ and be able to create a specific scenario with any one from the general population however until theses simulation devices have been proven to effectively simulate the necessary capabilities of a desired user group, regulations agencies are unlikely to accept the devices as a validation method for usability. Although a useful tool for a designer to understand their customers capabilities; for the moment let’s keep usability to the users!


  1. British Standards Institute, “Design management systems – Managing inclusive design,” BS 7000-6:2005, 2005.
  2. Woodhouse Publishing Series, Integrating the Packaging and Product Experience in Food and Beverages, 1st ed. Elsevier, 2016.