Patients and families are confronted daily with difficult decisions that impact their future, and caregivers are responding to patient needs in a swiftly changing healthcare system. Designing healthcare environments that address patients’ well-being while increasing caregiver efficiency is the goal of good design. Yet successful healthcare design often depends on an in-depth understanding of how people use and experience spaces.

As such, empathetic design is gaining prominence as a way for designers to truly see and experience the healthcare environment as patients see and experience it. Rather than rely exclusively on the trackable data of evidence-based design (EBD), Lean planning, practice-based research, and patient experience strategies, empathetic design relies more on experiential data.

Yet empathetic design isn’t necessarily new; it’s instead evolutionary, as healthcare planners continuously research and implement different strategies to better empathize with the patient. What is new is that digital technology creates a more immersive deep-dive into the patient experience that further informs existing best practices.

As part of this ongoing evolution, existing tools continue to provide valuable data to help designers gain empathy.

Gemba walks, for instance, are walk-throughs with primary users of a space that usually last one to two hours. The space or spaces could be the current-state environment that will be remodeled or a one that is considered best practice for the health system. During the walk-through, users point out plus/deltas of design features while planners take notes.

Journey mapping charts out experience along the patient’s journey (e.g., before, during, and after) within a hospital or clinic. The benefit of this activity is that it can be done with various users of the space, such as patients, visitors, staff, or providers. Typically, a paper template that has the sequence of events charted out is used to guide respondents . A prescripted sequence may include “traveling, arriving, entering, navigating inside, stay/shift, exiting/discharge.” Respondents write or discuss how they feel and provide experiences during each of these events.

Interviewing users can take many forms, such as structured, semi-structured, or unstructured. The difference between these forms depends if questions are already created or not. I find that semi-structured interviews are the best approach to building empathy. Having a few prepared open-ended questions can help spark the conversation and set the direction of an interview while also allowing flexibility for spontaneous experience-telling.

Asking experimental questions, providing opportunities for feedback, listening, and taking notes demonstrate empathy to the users, showing them that their voices are being heard. A report-out of findings can then be shared with the design team during a project meeting so that data can be translated into meaningful design insights.

Now a new set of evolving digital tools take the process a step further—building deeper empathy.

Virtual reality (VR), for instance, allows clients, patients, and designers to virtually experience a space using software, goggles, and hand-held controls, creating experiential insight into spatial layouts and functions. The benefits of VR are that it provides designers with immediate user feedback that can improve the design and eliminate late-stage loop backs.

Additionally, augmented reality enables designers to walk in the patient’s shoes, seeing spaces as they see and experience them. This can be especially helpful when planning spaces for the physically challenged—such as seniors. For instance, weighted body suits that hinder arm and leg movements can enable designers to physically experience the aging process.

A series of digital filters developed by HGA simulate vision impairment caused by cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other age-related conditions. Together with virtual reality and the body suit, the filters reveal experiential insight into how end-users experience space—it’s all empathetic design.

These tools are bringing another dimension to the planning process, enabling healthcare planners and designers to gain greater insight—and empathy—into how patients and caregivers use space. Subsequent blogs will explore these approaches and tools further to illustrate findings, direct applications, and impact through post-occupancy evaluations.

Kara Freihoefer, PhD, CID, EDAC, LEED ID+C is a design researcher at HGA (Milwaukee). She can be reached at