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Idea Generation Through Empathy: Reimagining the ‘Cognitive Walkthrough’

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Idea Generation and Creativity in Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.871.1 - 26.871.29



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Paper Authors


Colin M. Gray Iowa State University Orcid 16x16

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Colin M. Gray is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Iowa State University in the Center for e-Design. He holds a PhD in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University Bloomington, a MEd in Educational Technology from University of South Carolina, and a MA in Graphic Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. He has worked as an art director, contract designer, and trainer, and his continued involvement in design work informs his research on design activity and how it is learned. His research focuses on the role of student experience in informing a critical design pedagogy, and the ways in which the pedagogy and underlying studio environment inform the development of design thinking, particularly in relation to critique and professional identity formation in STEM disciplines. His work crosses multiple disciplines, including engineering education, instructional design and technology, design theory and education, and human-computer interaction.

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Seda McKIlligan Iowa State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Yilmaz is an Assistant Professor of Industrial Design. She teaches design studios and lecture courses on developing creativity and research skills. Her current research focuses on identifying impacts of different factors on ideation of designers and engineers, developing instructional materials for design ideation, and foundations of innovation. She often conducts workshops on design thinking to a diverse range of groups including student and professional engineers and faculty member from different universities. She received her PhD degree in Design Science in 2010 from University of Michigan. She is also a faculty in Human Computer Interaction Graduate Program and the ISU Site Director for Center for e-Design.

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Shanna R. Daly University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Shanna Daly is an Assistant Research Scientist and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Engineering Education in at the University of Michigan. She has a B.E. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Dayton (2003) and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University (2008). Her research focuses on strategies for design innovations through divergent and convergent thinking as well as through deep needs and community assessments using design ethnography, and translating those strategies to design tools and education. She teaches design and entrepreneurship courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, focusing on front-end design processes.

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Colleen M. Seifert University of Michigan

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Colleen M. Seifert is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, where she has taught since 1988. She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and psychology at Yale University. She was an ASEE postdoctoral fellow at the University of California – San Diego and the Navy Personnel Research Development Center. Her research interests center on learning, memory, and creativity.

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Richard Gonzalez University of Michigan

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PhD, Stanford University in Psychology. Studies decision making, applied statistics and mathematical modeling in psychology.

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Idea Generation Through Empathy: Reimagining the ‘Cognitive Walkthrough’Students in engineering are required to evaluate their products against user requirements, butoften, these requirements are abstracted from the user or context of use, making it difficult forstudents to empathize with the eventual user of the product or system they are designing. Inprevious research, we have demonstrated the use of Design Heuristics to encourage divergencein ideation at initial stages of the design process. Design Heuristics—a tool based on award-winning products and design activities of engineers and product designers (e.g., Yilmaz &Siefert, 2011)—has been extensively validated through empirical studies, shown to increaseideation capacity and flexibility. Use of this method has been focused primarily on early stageideation, with less support for students who are iterating on or evaluating more developedconcepts. Our proposal focuses on extending the student’s understanding of the problem spaceby generating empathy with the end user and context. Through this empathetic positioning, theDesign Heuristics method can be used to lead to a richer space for additional idea generation.Typical uses of Design Heuristics in an engineering classroom context (e.g., Daly, et al., 2012)have not been situated in the context of use, thus operating at a level of abstraction above theuser, context, or sociocultural milieu. One of the more significant insights to come out of thedesign community is the importance of problematizing the context and a rich understanding ofthe user and importing that information back into the design process (Beyer & Holtzblatt, 1996;Young, 2008). So while ideating with Design Heuristics allows for questioning on thecomponent or feature level, traditional framings of this method have not encouraged theinterrogation of the larger problem framing, or potential use cases and contexts within thatframing.Usability testing methods such as contextual inquiry (Beyer & Holtzblatt, 1996), mental models(Young, 2008), critical incident analysis (Flanagan, 1954), and cognitive walkthroughs (Spencer,2000; Wharton, Reiman, Lewis, & Polson, 1994) have been developed to foreground situated,user-centered perspectives of the design. We analyzed several of these user-centered methodscommon in other disciplines and then adapted the cognitive walkthrough for use in anengineering education context. This method was revised and extended to maximize empathywith the end user and context, in order to use these insights to promote a more situated form ofidea development using the Design Heuristics cards.The cognitive walkthrough is a method to evaluate usability in software engineering (Spencer,2000), and includes: defining inputs, convening the walkthrough and working through definedaction sequences, recording critical information, and iteratively revising the product. For anengineering context, we adapted this method (Figure 1) to encourage targeted idea generation,while relying on less structured action sequences, with the “user story” as the primary form ofwalking through the concept from a user perspective. Figure 1. Revised cognitive walkthrough process.In this paper, we present several case studies of students using this method to expand their notionof situated use, demonstrating how it may have utility for importation into engineering contexts.Our early testing has indicated that this method stimulates empathy on the part of the student forthe design context they are working within, resulting in a richer narrative that foregroundsproblems that a user might address, which recursively encourages targeted idea generation.ReferencesBeyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1998). Contextual design: Defining customer-centered systems. San Francisco, CA: MorganKaufmann.Daly, S. R., Christian, J. L., Yilmaz, S., Seifert, C. M., & Gonzalez, R. (2012). Assessing design heuristics for idea generation inan introductory engineering course. International Journal of Engineering Education, 28(2), 463.Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51(4), 327-358.Spencer, R. (2000). The streamlined cognitive walkthrough method, working around social constraints encountered in a softwaredevelopment company. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 353-359). NewYork, NY: ACM Press.Yilmaz, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2011). Creativity through design heuristics: A case study of expert product design. Design Studies,32(4), 384-415. doi:10.1016/j.destud.2011.01.003Young, I. (2008). Mental models: Aligning design strategy with human behavior. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.Wharton, C., Rieman, J., Lewis, C., & Polson, P. (1994). The cognitive walkthrough method: A practitioner's guide. In Usabilityinspection methods (pp. 105-140). New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Gray, C. M., & McKIlligan, S., & Daly, S. R., & Seifert, C. M., & Gonzalez, R. (2015, June), Idea Generation Through Empathy: Reimagining the ‘Cognitive Walkthrough’ Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24208

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