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Methods – Empathy Tool

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What it is:

The designer uses a simulation device to gain first-hand insights into particular impairments or disabilities, for example clouded glasses to simulate sight loss or weighted gloves to reduce dexterity. The experience of using such a device can prompt an empathic understanding of users with disabilities or special conditions, and a greater appreciation of how inappropriate design can disable. Clients as well as designers can benefit from such tools. However this method complements but does not replace speaking to real people with disabilities. Also described as role playing.






Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High


Direct experience of reduced ability and user needs

Best suited to:



Earlier stages of the design process

Testing initial concepts in relation to a spectrum of ability

Gaining an insight into human experience



Type of interaction:


Goes well with:

Prototyping, Interview, Immersive Workshop

What designers say about it

‘…Mature and elderly drivers are becoming an increasingly large percentage of the motoring public. So with the Third Age suit we believe we have an advantage in knowing what that large demographic group demands…’ – Richard Perry-Jones, Vice President for Product Development, Ford


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Safe and sensual

Designer Mary Wagstaff used a range of empathy tools, including goggles and gloves, to explain to senior executives at European shower manufacturer Hansgrohe how older people with sight and dexterity problems would interact with their products.

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Ford Focus

Young designers at Ford wore Third Age suits to gain a better understanding of older drivers’ needs during the development of the Ford Focus. The result was a vehicle that was easier for everyone to use.

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Background and further reading

Empathy tools can be traced back to a pioneering experiment conducted by the US industrial designer Patricia Moore, who role-played an old lady on the streets of North American cities from 1979-1982, using makeup, prosthetics and various empathy devices. Moore wrote a best-selling book called Disguised: A True Story about her largely negative experiences. Her approach inspired Third Age suits, which have enabled young designers to simulate the effects of ageing, vision-impaired spectacles and arthritis-simulation gloves.

This method, Moore acknowledges, allows designers to ‘immerse’ themselves in the user experience in order to gain deeper insights. It is also known as empathic research or role-playing – it allows the designer to understand not just the physical use of products and spaces, but how the individual feels emotionally and socially in situations and tasks.

Disguised: A True Story by Pat Moore with Charles Paul Conn  (Word Books 1985)

Cambridge Simulation Gloves are available for sale here

Cambridge Simulation Glasses are available for sale here