Empathic Engineers for better technology development

We are surrounded and affected by technology and we are facing an extensively automatized future. We often forget that people develop these technologies for other people. Thus, it is important that the developers of future technology understand humans, users and the society the technology impacts. Thus, it is important to train “empathic engineers”.

In order to be able to do this, we need to identify what exactly is relevant empathy in product development since it is currently conceptualized differently in brain research, psychology and design. We will establish solid measurement techniques for empathy using our expertise from brain research, wearable sensors and psychology. Once we can measure empathy we can help develop ways to increase empathy during the product development process and study if increased empathy also leads to empathic action. That is, help product developers better understand the users and where technology is used and enable them to use this understanding in the designing new technology.

Technology development projects, however, are complex and it is unlikely that the same people who interface with the users would be in involved in the later decisions throughout the development. Thus, it is important to be able to study how to communicate and transfer empathy to the rest of the large product development organization. Our project introduces a novel competitive edge in Finnish technology industry that does not rely solely on price or technology, but rather can complete on better more humane technology, which in turn will result in better technology for all of us.

We will collaborate with two technology firms, KONE corporation and GE Healthcare, in the project. They have expressed interest in understanding what empathy is beyond the buzzword today and especially how to communicate and transfer empathy during a complex product development project. Their involvement is essential in keeping the project grounded in the everyday realities of product development as well as applicability and adoption of the results at the end.

Our team consists of experts in product development, brain research and psychology, all essential co-dependent areas of expertise needed for this project. Through this joint effort of Aalto University Design Factory, the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Computer Science we aim at setting the empirical bases for the education of future empathic humane-decision-making engineers.

Research team:

Katja Hölttä-Otto
Associate Professor of Product Development.
Design Factory, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Aalto University


Mikko Sams
Professor of Cognitive Technology
Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, Department of Computer Science
Aalto University