Empathy in design and digitalisation – Aalto University researchers hold workshops for students at Arabia Comprehensive School

Aalto University researchers organised workshops for seventh graders, whose creative thinking skills were put to the test in designing future information services
A teacher and two researchers smiling and sorting through paper presentations in a classroom
Paula Valkonen (left) and Kaisa Savolainen (right) from Aalto University and Liisa Luostarinen from the Arabia Comprehensive School shuffling through the workshop presentations. Image: Anna Pulkkinen

Researchers from Aalto University and teachers from the Arabia Comprehensive School recently joined forces to organise service design workshops for seventh graders. The workshops harnessed students with design thinking skills and challenged them to design digital health and wellness services, which would be emphatic towards the end-users.

‘With these workshops, we can show students how human-centric service design thinking can be applied to various areas,’ says Paula Valkonen, doctoral researcher at Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science. ‘Understanding people is extremely important when you’re designing information systems. Without empathy, these systems may become difficult to use.’

Two full classes of seventh graders grabbed the assignment by the horns. In one of the tasks, students used self-made cartoons and videos to map out user-needs for digital health services and envision how these services could be made better in the future. 

Students worked on the cartoons and videos in small groups and demonstrated how naturally and creatively teenagers can empathise with end-users and develop concrete proposals for more human-centric alternatives.

‘Our students had a wonderful opportunity to try out service design with these fun but somewhat challenging tasks,” says Liisa Luostarinen, art and design teacher at Arabia Comprehensive School. ‘It’s important that students have a chance to design and communicate their ideas visually in various contexts, because it develops their design thinking skills more generally as well.”

Design thinking has been integrated into the school’s teaching throughout a student’s journey through grades one to nine.

‘At Arabia Comprehensive School, we emphasise design education in all grades and offer it as elective studies from grades 4-6 and 8-9. Additionally, our seventh graders study design as a part of their curricula for an hour each week,’ says Luostarinen.

The researchers were also inspired by the workshops and the creativeness of the students.

‘The students were able to utilise their various strengths in group work, much like is done in service design processes in working life,’ says Kaisa Savolainen, postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University’s Department of Design. ‘It was wonderful to witness how unapologetically and proficiently they tackled the design challenges and made use of some genuinely creative thinking.’

The fruitful results have prompted ideas for more workshops in the future. The workshops are based on a concept initially developed for in the annual Shaking up Tech event. The event aims to encourage more young women and gender minorities to choose an education and career in technology. It is based on the premise that technology professionals have an essential role in deciding which problems technology will seek to solve. The more diverse the team involved in building the future, the more versatile it will be in meeting people's needs.

Text: Paula Valkonen, Kaisa Savolainen, Liisa Luostarinen

Paula Valkonen

Doctoral Researcher
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The Department of Design is a diverse community of competent, creative and responsible individuals. In design, we appreciate technical skill, social significance and artistic expression.

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