The New Normal: UI Professor Deana McDonagh’s Research in Empathic Design

IMG_5897Every morning, Deana McDonagh makes tea. She puts the leaves in a teapot and carefully pours the boiling water in. As the leaves soak, she patiently waits and watches what she calls the “ritual of the fusion.”

Each step — listening to the sound of the water pouring over the leaves, making sure the color of the tea is just right, adding the perfect amount of milk — is a part of McDonagh’s own ritual, one that represents her belief that material objects can make a person more emotionally stable and allow them to live a more fulfilling life.

This belief is one to which she has devoted her life’s work. McDonagh is a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who researches empathic design. In the past year, her research has led her to become involved in designing products — most recently, in developing a voice amplifier for people with disabilities.

She is also a researcher at Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and is involved in product development and advising emerging startups at the University’s Research Park.

“My area is empathy and emotion, so it’s really important that as we age, as we grow old, as we develop disabilities, everything that we surround ourselves with is empowering us,” she said.

As an industrial designer, McDonagh believes that the products that make up everyday life should work for the user instead of against them. If somebody pushes a door that instructs them to pull, McDonagh said it’s the door’s fault.

“Bad design slaps us in the face every day,” she said. “Good design goes relatively unnoticed because that’s what good design should do.”

Whether it’s food packaging, shower gel, or a car seat, McDonagh believes these products have value because they satisfy needs: emotional, cultural, social, functional, and aspirational. She said these needs can be met if products accommodate everyone’s perspective.

McDonagh said she has looked at the world through an industrial perspective since she was a child. She credits this outlook to being born and raised in the industrial city of Manchester, England.

“Mancunians, which is what I am, they are very industrious,” she said. “. . . I think that suits me well for coming into the American culture.”

Prior to coming to the America in 2004, McDonagh earned a bachelor’s degree in three-dimensional design from Manchester Metropolitan University, a master’s degree in industrial design from the University of Salford, and a Ph.D. in industrial design from Loughborough University. At Loughborough, she was a lecturer and reader before she got the opportunity to teach at the University of Illinois.

The chance to work in a different culture that spoke English was what she said prompted her to teach in another country. Eleven years later, she said she feels more established in the U.S. than anywhere else.

“The longer I’m here, the less I feel the need to go back,” McDonagh said. “. . . I think the more you achieve and the more you prove yourself, the less you have to prove yourself. There’s a track record.”

But McDonagh said it was a track record that did not come easy. Twenty years ago, when McDonagh would attend design conferences and be the only woman in attendance, she would often have to fight to have her voice heard in a male-dominated field.

“I’d be the one talking about empathy and emotion, and it was perceived as, shall we say, trivial, at best,” she said.

In a space that at first did not respect her views on empathic design, McDonagh said she feels the tide changing. She said more designers are now realizing the value of empathy in the design process.

Within her efforts to ensure all perspectives are included in the design process, she personally places a high value on the female perspective. In her opinion, many everyday products have been designed by men, which means they were designed for men — for example, car and plane seats.

“I cannot get comfortable in a plane seat. And it’s like, I want that seat to fit me,” McDonagh said. “I’m paying just as much as everyone else, why doesn’t it fit me? Why am I uncomfortable in it?”

McDonagh said she is fascinated with challenging the “conventional wisdom of the dominant group,” and that it is her goal to “sensitize males to the female experience.” This includes dealing with subjects that may be viewed as uncomfortable. But McDonagh said “being provocative is okay.”

She enjoys embarrassing her students by referring to products such as the P-Mate, a paper funnel that allows females to urinate standing up. She has a few P-Mates stored in her desk and, after shuffling through her drawers to find one, is more than eager to explain how they work.

“You should imagine all the male faces when I give these out,” she said. “. . . Just because we urinate sitting down or squatting, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider standing up. You can pick up all kinds of infections off of toilet seats. Women know that. Men don’t know that.”

McDonagh is also especially passionate about ensuring that the perspectives of people with disabilities are included in the design process. She teaches a course in the University’s School of Art and Design called Disability and Relevant Design that allows disabled and non-disabled students to collaborate on creating products for people with disabilities.

The idea began with a project that was initiated by Lydia Khuri, the program director of four living-learning communities on the University campus and a practicing psychologist.

“I had seen an exhibit documenting race and racism on campus and found it very powerful,” Khuri said. “I thought it would be cool if somebody did that around disability issues.”

She got in contact with McDonagh and pitched her idea. Once the plan was in action, Khuri recruited Susann Sears, the acting director of Beckwith Residential Support Services, a program that supports students with disabilities who live in the University’s Nugent Hall.

“We worked collaboratively together and had this amazing art exhibition display at the Illini Union,” Sears said. “Truly, it was an interdisciplinary initiative, meaning we came from different disciplines, different ways of looking at the world, and worked together collaboratively to come up with these solutions.”

Khuri said working with McDonagh was “a lot of fun,” and that McDonagh’s creativity, energy, and charisma serve her well for her career path.

“She’s got her heart and mind in the right place in terms of doing this work,” Khuri said.

McDonagh, Khuri and Sears decided to continue their research and develop a course around the topic of disabilities and design. Since 2007, McDonagh has taught students how to bring empathy into the design process to create effective products for people with disabilities. The kind of products the class produces depends on who is in the class and what disabilities are represented. McDonagh said they are always diverse, which allows the class to have far-reaching impact.

“If I have somebody with no vision and a seeing-eye dog, or I have somebody who can’t hold a pen, then we have to be really creative and innovative with how they engage with the designing process,” McDonagh said.

The course has brought to life products such as better raincoats for wheelchair users, something that Khuri said was needed since the standard product resembles garbage bags.

“Who wants to ride around in a wheelchair looking like they’ve got a garbage bag on? Let’s get something nice, you know? Let’s make something fashionable, useful, practical, but also really hip,” Khuri said. “Then you’re going to want to wear that raincoat.”

Sears said the aesthetic features of the products they make are just as important as the functional features. “That’s what gives people their dignity, that’s part of it,” Sears said. “That’s why what [McDonagh] does is so important.”

The course recently provided an opportunity for McDonagh to literally give a voice to people with disabilities. In the past several months, she has been working on developing a voice amplifier called AmpliMy. It was designed for Alexis Wernsing, a student with cerebral palsy who took McDonagh’s course and was a teaching assistant for the course this past spring.

Wernsing was collaborating with McDonagh on the project until her death on Oct. 1, 2015. In her honor, McDonagh said she will continue to develop AmpliMy in the hopes of helping anybody who has difficulty in projecting their voice.

From experiences like these, McDonagh has learned that the perspectives of people with disabilities can enrich the world in more ways than one, especially when it comes to her course.

“They bring to us not only a great level of academic capital, but it makes our population a little bit more diverse than it is,” she said. “. . . You look at real people through a new lens to help you develop empathy for others and also see how you can have an impact for your community beyond just doing the ordinary.”

Beyond just doing the ordinary could also be a way to describe McDonagh’s approach to the future of design. She has plenty of ideas for products that can provide functionality and emotional stability.

Essentially, McDonagh sees a future where every product can be tailored to the user’s specific needs. It’s a future that includes products like a toilet that analyzes waste and tells the user if they are dehydrated or lacking certain nutrients, a refrigerator that gives meal options based on its contents, and self-cleaning showers.

Not only does she believe products should improve lives and meet the user’s needs, she believes they should make life more fun.

“I just challenge everything. Why does the dentist drill sound so awful? Why can’t it chirp or sound engaging?” McDonagh said. “From the moment you wake up, everything you touch should be joyful. The color and flavor of toothpaste should give you joy. Don’t leave all that fun stuff for the children. Let us have some enjoyment.”

For this reason, McDonagh encourages her students to look at the world from the viewpoint of a five-year-old, as if anything is possible.

She said that might seem crazy, but for her, crazy is the next normal.

“When I was young, the thought of a phone and a camera, putting them together, was seen as ridiculous and crazy speak. And now it’s like we’ve all got them in our pockets,” McDonagh said. “So it’s just interesting, what sounds crazy today, we have to talk this way.”

She said this will direct and shape what will be developed in the next 15 years.

McDonagh also hopes that more designers will see the benefits of empathic design. She said she is glad to already see this change happening, along with the change of seeing that what she brings to a research group or to students is perceived to have value without the need to assert herself, as it was when her career began.

“For a lot of women in numerically male dominated fields, they don’t feel worthy. You feel like the imposter. It is a well-known situation, where females feel like this,” she said. “That’s way gone. I have a right to be here and so do female students.”

As the first full female professor of industrial design on the University campus, McDonagh is not afraid to make waves. “I’m on a rant and a mission,” she said of her work and her belief in empathic design, which has not wavered since she discovered its benefits.

“You have to really be sure that everything you surround yourself with gives you joy, and it helps you complete tasks in a very seamless way, and that helps with your emotional well-being as well,” she said. “I know it sounds weird, but this works.”

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