Simulating barriers to improve ideation and empathy

Our work to understand the authentic user needs of older adults has provided us with new perspectives on aging. We were excited to share those insights with hundreds of professionals at this week’s Leading Age Institute and Expo, the premier conference for older adult services providers.

Fathom Consulting facilitated two interactive sessions with attendees, one of which asked participants to simulate the many challenges that their own clients experience every day—and the way those challenges can become barriers to their use of technology. By analyzing and understanding barriers of older adults, we can gain empathy while uncovering new ways to ensure everyone, regardless of their age, can still benefit from technological advances.

There are several reasons to specifically consider how technology is used in this population, rather than simply relying on accessibility standards alone. Older adults often experience multiple age-related challenges at once and differ from younger adults in their attitude and comfort with technology. And, older adults are prime potential beneficiaries of technology—so it’s time to go beyond accessible to developing solutions that are attractive, easy, productive, and even enjoyable!

So, what is it like to use an iPad with macular degeneration? How easy is it to “Ask Siri” if you’ve had a stroke?

Drawing inspiration from the work of Pattie Moore in the 1970s, our session engaged participants in several simulations designed to build empathy for those who are experiencing seven different physical, cognitive, and attitudinal barriers. Together we then brainstormed workarounds or solutions using two ideation prompts:

  1. How Might We improve the technology so it is easier to use for those with a particular challenge?
  2. How Might We support people who have this challenge so they can still use the technology?


While dictating prompts to Siri with hesitant and inarticulate speech (“Wait, let me finish!” ”I’m so over this”) or trying to multitask with multiple distractions (“Ohmygosh, really?! You expect me to remember that!”), attendees quickly gained empathy for those they work with—and made a vow to be more patient in helping others with real barriers navigate technology challenges.


Should you try a simulation?

Moore and many others in Academia, including the MIT Age Lab, have established that using artificial means to temporarily experience barriers can increase our understanding and empathy of those who experience them every day. However, there are several things we must keep in mind:

  • Simulations should be done with respect and solemnity and not in a mocking or frivolous way.
  • Simulations should be done with a clear goal in mind. In this case, our goal was to help us brainstorm better ways to support those with a particular barrier in using technology.
  • Simulations are immediate and only temporary. It’s important to recognize that experiencing something for a few moments is nothing like experiencing a progressively-worsening challenge or living with a barrier for many years.


A multi-faceted framework and assessment tool

To learn more about the seven barriers and for a tool to assess whether you, or someone close to you, is experiencing one, download the two-page handout from our session.

Fathom Consulting hosts InnovateHer Challenge for Minnesota

Fathom Consulting hosts InnovateHer Challenge for Minnesota

Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming over 60 healthcare innovators in the community to our office in the North Loop for the Minnesota instance of the InnovateHer Challenge. This challenge, sponsored by the Small Business Association seeks to “unearth innovative products and services that help impact and empower the lives of women and their families”. Winners from regional competitions such as this one may be selected as semi-finalists to compete for cash prizes totaling $70,000.

Healthcare.MN, a collaborative community of innovators and thinkers passionate about healthcare, put out the call for participants and sixteen entered. Each participant had three minutes to convince a panel of judges (including our own Kate McRoberts) that their innovative product:

• Will (or is) filling an authentic need in the marketplace;
• Can (or does) impact and empower women and their families; and
• Has the potential for commercialization.

Throughout the evening challengers gave incredible pitches on everything from cooling caps to prevent hair loss during chemo to simple EMRs for clinicians in developing countries and business appropriate clothing tailor-made for muscular female crossfit enthusiasts. Many pitches had a wonderful personal story as inspiration, including a pitch to create a fitness and empowerment program for residents of a women’s shelter, or a discreet wristband that gives haptic feedback to allow the user to break bad habits such as trichotillomania (or hair pulling).
In the end the panel of judges declared Molly Fuller the winner. Molly’s business, Molly Fuller Design is currently working to create stylish clothing for children and teens with autism and sensory integration needs. The designs will use deep pressure therapy techniques of weight and compression to relieve anxiety due to sensory overload. Molly’s preparedness, humor, and personal story make her a strong contender for the national prize.

Design for the Caring Professions: New White Paper and Slideshare

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present to 45 UX professionals at TC UX Meetup. I chose to speak on a topic that has become close to my heart over the past few years:  what it’s like to work on the front lines of healthcare and social services as a caring professional. We explored methods for doing in-depth user research and guidelines for designing effective solutions once you understand the user needs.

This topic is also covered in a white paper I recently wrote. Analyzing data from nearly 200 individual interviews, the paper explores how the unique needs of caring professionals are shaped by how they think about their work, the environments in which they perform it, and their interactions with other people. In addition, it provides concrete guidelines to help those who are designing for this specialized user group to maximize the effectiveness of their solutions.

Download the paper for a deep dive into:

  • The mindset of those who have chosen to work caring for people,
  • Constraints imposed by the environment in which they work, and
  • Expectations placed on them by others.


Gaining a deep understanding of how care professionals approach their work, spend their days, and adapt to their organization’s expectations enables the creation of systems and procedures that work for this unique user group.

The same techniques used for this research and analysis could be applied to most other user groups with similar success. With meaningful and directed curiosity, a user experience partner can uncover the authentic needs of your users and create designs that exceed their expectations.

Download Whitepaper  View SlideShare Presentation