Empathy in Learning Design

 Sympathy vs Empathy 

Sympathy is a person’s condition or ability to show concern for someone else or to understand another person’s feelings. Sympathy is a positive human trait. However, sympathy, by its very nature, is associated with a sense of detachment and in practice it comes across as feeling sorrow or pity for the other’s person’s condition. To lose that feeling of detachment and to be really close, one needs to have empathy.  

Empathy is about experiencing the other person’s emotions as if it’s one’s own; it’s about looking at the world through another person’s eyes; it’s about understanding why the other person is feeling what they are feeling, and why they are doing what they are doing. 

Sympathy vs Empathy

Where Empathy Fits 

Traditional modes of learning involve topics with teachers explaining those topics via ways that they feel are correct. In recent times, there has been an increased focus on digital learning solutions to figure out how best to transfer knowledge. There has been a lot more focus on learning design, and various virtual learning programs have been posited. But, as we all know, there is no one-size-fits-all theory or design that has been emphatically proven to be the most successful.  

Broadly speaking, most, if not all learning theories and experts say the same thing – knowledge transfer tends to be more successful if the learning is designed keeping the needs of the learner in mind. The more a design is attuned to the virtual learning programs, the higher the chance of a successful learning outcome.  

There have been lots of theories about how best to analyse learning needs and design a solution that addresses those needs and that’s where empathy comes in Empathy in learning design enables the teachers/designers to put themselves in the learners’ shoes and get inside their heads. It enables teachers to figure out the learners’ perspectives, goals, and challenges. 

Facilitating Empathy  

The question for the teachers/designers to address is how they can facilitate the growth of empathy among themselves to get into the learners’ shoes. One way is the What How Why method. 

As a teacher/designer, you first observe what a person is doing, then see how they are doing it, and finally think about why.  

Empathy Map - What How Why

Another way is the traditional four-quadrant Empathy Map: Just like the What How Why method, this also involves close observation and detailed interviews. Ideally you observe the person while they perform their daily task and ask questions to get their reactions. If that is not possible, then just a detailed interview is the way to go. Observe the person and record what they are saying and doing in the two left-hand quadrants and based on their reactions, fill in the two right-hand quadrants. 


Do keep in mind that these are not mutually exclusive quadrants, and there can be multiple overlaps.  

Data Collection 

Now, you might be thinking that it’s easy to observe the learner, but how do you actually do that? 

As mentioned earlier, the ideal way is to follow the learner and converse with them while they are performing their tasks. But since that is not always possible, here are some ways: 

  • Interviews 
  • Polls and surveys 
  • Social media habits and usage patterns 
  • Questionnaires 
  • Eye-tracking software to catch which on-screen elements the eyeballs immediately go towards, and which elements are missed out 

However, the observation should not be like looking at animals in a zoo. You should ensure that you are always humble, non-patronising, non-condescending, non-disrupting.  

There is an old Ronan Keating song with the lyrics, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.” That is something you must remember when collecting the data. Do not just blindly record what the learners are saying but also keep a lookout for visual cues, gestures, and track what they are not saying as well. 

What’s Next 

So, now that you have an idea about the learner, now that you have found a way into the learner’s emotional drivers, how do you build the empathic connection that will make the learner trust you and believe in you to address their learning needs and challenges? 

Whichever method you apply, the next step must be listing the insights that you have gained. These insights will tell you what is important to the learner, what interests them, what are the challenges, what are the needs, what focuses and what distracts them, what they can relate to, and what is alien to them. 

All of these will help you in designing a digital learning solution that actually benefit the learners as opposed to being just a checkbox exercise. 


While designing, here are some tools that you can employ: 

  • Stories, narratives, scenarios, real or fictional, but socially, culturally, and linguistically favoured by the learners; ones that in no way would alienate or discourage the learners     
  • Analogies and metaphors that make sense to the learners; ones that they can easily identify and relate to  
  • Adjectives and verbs that enable you to show, and not tell and enable you to create a sense of shared journey and not a set of orders to follow 
  • User-friendly GUIs with appropriate and relevant colours, images, fonts, and icons  
  • Relatable characters; ones who look like the learners, dress like the learners, sound like the learners, work like the learners, etc. 
  • Constructive, diagnostic feedback instead of just summations. 


To maximise the chances of success of a digital learning solution, empathy must become the first stage of learning design. After the Empathise stage, comes the Define stage. Here, based on what you learned in the previous stage, you figure out how to customise the overall learning and business needs to the learning objectives catering to the learner’s needs. Using the empathy, you have established, you can now identify the learners’ challenges and proceed with addressing them. 

Virtual Learning Programs

It is only by acknowledging and understanding the emotions of the learners that we can ensure that the learning solutions address them.  

In a corporate context, more impactful virtual learning programs and successful knowledge transfer can positively impact the bottom line. Furthermore, establishing an empathetic connection between the online learning management system and the workforce may increase engagement and collaboration, and ultimately job satisfaction.

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