Empathy in Design: Measuring the Impact of Biophilia

Is home your happy place? Does it make you feel warm and welcome?

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Interiors displayed on Instagram, @YellowTrace

Now that a pandemic has turned our homes into multipurpose spaces that double as offices, gyms, schools, playgrounds and safe havens from a virus, feelings matter more than ever. Can we use this moment to improve design, become more aware of what people need, and focus on how design makes us feel?

By paying special attention to people’s feelings, we can build empathy into the design process.

Plenty of magazines, catalogs, newsletters and streaming services have jumped on the bandwagon recently. Instead of articles about restorations, renovations and rehabs, they now ask, “How Does Your Home Make You Feel?” and give tips on “How to Adjust your Workspace to Fit You!”

The business world picked up on the trend a while ago. Harvard Business Review published a series on Emotional Intelligence including a book on Empathy (in 2017) to address the “human side of professional life.” And Apple Computer’s success has long-rested on prioritizing human feelings and experience; they routinely hire neuroscientists to help do so. Sites on Instagram like @ YellowTrace (images at right and below) encourage people to share their feelings about place and offer the opportunity to compare and contrast designs to see which they prefer and why.  Here we can learn what makes design empathetic.

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Preferred interiors on Instagram featuring  biophilic elements.

That’s what architectural students, Reem Alzayani and Sergio Ramos, did when they presented their research this month at the Boston Architectural College (BAC).*

Setting up a poll to compare preferences for living spaces on their Instagram site, they found that those rooms supporting biophilia, our innate tendency to want to connect with nature, were most preferred.

“The most successful images from the poll had plenty of biophilic elements, which most of the people that participated in the poll preferred over their counter images,” Alzayani and Ramos said. 

They also showed how spaces with low preference ratings could become more empathic by adding biophilic elements. Using 3M’s Visual Attention Software which tracks how our eyes take in a scene pre-attentively or unconsciously, in the first 3-to-5 seconds, the research demonstrated how adding biophilic elements can change how the eyes take in a scene – and contribute to an empathetic experience.

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Above, top left, is the original scene, below it, the same space with added biophilic elements. The heatmaps at immediate right, glowing reddest where people look most, indicate people take in the space more evenly with the added skylight and plant arrangements. In the visual sequence diagram, we can numerically follow the eye movements predicted during the first 3-to-5 seconds – confirming how people will immediately glance more evenly throughout the room with more greenery.

“Our focus was on the overall atmosphere of the space rather than creating a focal point in the interior space,” the team said. They used the same approach with the study below; “by adding more/bigger greener plants and changing the color of the light pendant we distributed the attention on the image.”

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 8.56.08 AMLooking at the heat map, visual sequence and regions of interest diagrams (which show in red outline where most viewers, 77-95%, look), we see how attention moves away from the hanging lights towards the greener elements in the room. This may be a reason why, in follow-up interviews, viewers found the photoshopped images more inviting.

Biometric studies like this coupled with preference studies and social media tools can help understand how design impacts us and uncover innate preferences. They aide our ability to design with empathy – helping to create spaces that make us feel warm and welcomed and safe and healthy. And what could be more relevant for our current moment? 

Next up: More on Empathic (or Empathetic) Design, a look at faces + fractals, key patterns that encourage it.

* Research done for BAC’s Architecture & Cognition class which explores new findings in neuroscience and new technologies that help us better understand architectureʼs impact on people. Ann Sussman, RA, instructor, more info: BAC and annsussman.com

This entry was posted in Architecture, Biology, Design, Eye Tracking, Health, People-centric Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Empathy in Design: Measuring the Impact of Biophilia

  1. Pingback: Students Changing Design with Biometrics | The Genetics of Design

  2. Pingback: Impact of Biophilia | Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture

  3. Tamiflu says:

    “Measuring Up” documents a design research study conducted by Perkins Eastman that used the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School, located in Cambridge, MA, as a test case. The study showed that the high-performance design strategies employed in the design of the MLK School had a significant and measurable impact on both occupant satisfaction and building performance. These findings tie high-performance design strategies to improved building performance and increased satisfaction, bringing the theoretical value-add proposition for high-performance design into reality.


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