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A platform that supports transformation

by re-engaging with the food system


Design a product, service, or solution that enables/creates empathy across a large and diverse demographic. Demonstrate a creation that is innovative, maps back to a clear need, and leverages current technologies (or those that are feasible in the near-term). Your creation may be near-term practical or blue sky, but it must have a realistic chance of adoption if instantiated. Of course, to deliver empathy at scale, much is implied — from security, privacy, and cross-group cooperation and coordination; your design should minimally show awareness of these barriers and/or explore solutions to them.

Situate your design exploration within a broader context that incorporates the challenges of the 2018 IPCC report calling for a 40–50% decarbonization by year 2030.


Inclusive Design Team at Microsoft


15 Weeks


Secondary Research, Expert Interviews, Guided Story telling, Observations, Diary Study


Gautham Krishna, Cathryn Ploehn, Matt Prindible

My role: Interviews and Participatory Research, Research Synthesis and Concept Generation


Territory Definition


Exploratory Research Synthesis

Generative Research Concept Development


Evaluative Research

Reflect and Communicate

Defining Empathy

Given the prompt 'Design for empathy at scale', we began the research process by first defining what empathy meant to us. Our discussion centered around personal anecdotes, discussion of Valeria Lumbroso’s Empathy: The Heart's Intelligence, Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, and the various types / triggers of empathy.

We then synthesised our discussion into a working definition of empathy:


A process of 


A recognition of


Enabled by





Processed by


To effect change in

Everyday Life

To promote

Social Cohesion

Framing the issue

To situate our framing of empathy within the environment, we used the IPCC report to give ourselves context. The 11 year horizon and the need for radical decarbonisation by 2030 gave our take on empathy some urgency. 

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Global Warming of 1.5C

IPCC Special Report

Radical Decarbonisation

40-50% of Emissions

By 2030

Timeline and Urgency

All scenarios outlined in the report require dramatic changes to the way we live

Identifying ways to act

We used the 17 UN Strategic Development Goals to explore the range of possible action, as well as grapple with levels of scale. We then approached 7 development goals that were connected to the integrity of the environment. Looking at these in further detail, we finally identified 1 goal where people are most connected to the change they are seeking.

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Narrowing the territory

A key aspect of our take on empathy was the idea of efficacy / actionability; the ability for one to act on their connection with a subject in duress. We needed a way to reconcile the large scale shifts necessary for decarbonization (in a short time frame) with the individual experience of empathy. The UN provides very high- level recommendations at very large scales, so we used Project Drawdown to begin identifying specific actions.

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Average reduction of emissions by solution

Two of the top five interventions that account for the most potential reduction in carbon emissions happen at individual scale the individual scale. We chose to focus on diet because of its potential for a disproportionately large positive impact.

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“Bringing about dietary change is not simple because eating is profoundly personal and cultural, but promising strategies abound.”

Building a territory map

The next challenge presented itself in identifying our focus area. We started out by mapping the different physical actors in the system across different scales.


Physical spaces (natural and artificial) where experiences happens


Groups of stakeholders with common connection


Individual actors (both human and nonhuman)

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We begin to focus our interests on parts of the territory that emphasize our interests in individual behavior at human scale in everyday life.

But just mapping out the actors was not enough. Through our research we realised there were a lot of external factors that influenced decision mapping, and it was time to map those on to the existing map.


Points of interaction


Beliefs that influence decision making


Ability to be harmed

Practices and Norms

Everyday behaviors and actions

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Creating overlaps between these two worlds helped us define our focus; Where should we start our secondary research? What were the questions most important for us to achieve our aim?

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How is this all linked together?

Mapping out the relationships between the causes and effects helped create a value flow: Stakeholders carry out different practices in their daily lives, which in turn amplifies or dampens vulnerabilities of other stakeholders in the system. These experiences are also influenced by the environments they are situated in and the communities they are a part off.

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Based on this model, we brainstormed questions that we would like to explore.

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How might we reimagine grocery stores to situate new narratives about environmental vulnerability?

(Re)framing our understanding of Empathy

With a newly defined focus, we started by revisiting our working definition of empathy using secondary research. We wanted to take our previous definition and make it a bit more actionable—making it into a lens we can use to look through our observations.


We synthesized our current research on empathy through affinity mapping and ended up with ten different clusters that describe different parts of this soft-wired process. We captured the spirit of our observations through questions. We then started to seek relationships across them, which led us to build a model of empathy. 

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The Empathy Model

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Expert Interviews

We substantiated our research with expert input from Francis Carter, Dr. Nadine Lehrer, and Dr. Sally Frey—they helped us not only frame our observations but also helped us consider the way we approach our research.

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"Food is deeply personal and yet, it connects people from around the world. Use food as your medium of design research."

Grocery Store Visits

We started looking for narratives about food in the world, and for that we visited different types of groceries stores. We specifically looked at signages, posters and other design mediums, and also talked to different customers.

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Diary Study

Throughout this project, we’ve made a conscious effort to reflect on some of our own habits. A couple weeks into the project, we realized that the four of us had eaten about 252 times. A diary study with some moments of guided storytelling seemed like a great way to start examining some of these decisions.


We wrangled together five people, considering their differing religious and cultural backgrounds, lifestyles and opinions. And for three days they collected photos and descriptions of their food. At the end of the evening we had a short interview.

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Dinner Party

Pictures and descriptions are great. But cooking and eating together is even better—so we brought together all of our diary study participants for a dinner party! We prepared an entirely vegan menu filled with alternative proteins as a center for the discussion. And ended the night by sharing food stories—as we were interested in the ways people talk about food in a story.

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Research Synthesis

Our field research gave us a lot of data. We, again, used affinity mapping to synthesize these findings. And what emerged were 13 clusters. In order to better understand the relationship between these categories, we mapped them to their place in our empathy model.

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A (richer) Empathy Model

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Personalising the Research Findings

We wanted to really immerse ourselves in this first-person view, so we wrote stories based on all the insight we generated—to embody of the spirt of these pain points. These stories are a composite of all the different things we heard, in an effort to create mindsets. 

These are their stories. These are our stories. These are your stories.

"I want to live in concert with the world. But buying food make it more and more difficult. Vegan butter, made with palm oil for example. Where is it coming from? I know about the clearing of rainforests… but does this one come from a “sustainable” plantation? What does that mean??? It’s so abstract. I want to know what my purchase is doing to the land. Or even the people working there? Or the animals living there?"


"I’ve lived all around the world and I love indulging in all sorts of local treats and delicacies. But now, as a student, I rely primarily on what’s convenient and affordable. I also try to look at what’s healthy and good for me. Primarily though, I eat for myself. Ecological values? The environment? I don’t really think about any of that… I enjoy food for what it is…."

Beliefs and Imperatives


"Usually we think about cars being terrible for the environment, but it’s shocking to read how red meat can be just as bad. Then you go to the store. It’s cheap. And it’s tasty. It's already there, so I don’t want to let it go to waste. So, honestly, I end up buying it. Am I just buying into hysteria? Because local farmers, jobs, organic, grass-fed—it all sounds pretty good. And even if I do cut back—is it really going to make a dent?"



"I grew up in a vegetarian family. Once I moved out of the house… I faced an overwhelming amount of decisions: What kind of food do I want to eat? How much do I want to spend on it? Where do I buy my food from? Where does this food actually come from? It felt safer not having to scrutinise every. Decision. That led to this day. I thought just being vegetarian would just be good enough. But I realise now I am far from it."

How might we amplify, extend, or design new opportunities for meaningful everyday engagement in our food systems?

Participatory Design Research

As we moved into the next phase of our design process, we started looking at generative design research techniques - the first of which was participatory design. We explored different materials and methods to understand how might we evoke a sense of empathy using the tools available to us.

To read the detailed research process please view on desktop! :)
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