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Empathy for Innovation

Industrial design student uses thoughtful design solutions to help humans stay healthy with the aid of technology.

As an inquisitive child and teenager, Gokul Beeda ’21 was a fan of Ripley’s Weird True Facts, Believe It or Not and other collections of little known, amazing bits of information. When he ran out of Ripley’s to read, he compiled his own book of facts. Now in his final semester of coursework for the industrial and interaction design program in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts , Beeda is using his penchant for new knowledge to address contemporary, real-world problems in the area of home health monitoring for chronic conditions.

Beeda chose to study at Syracuse after learning that the bachelor of industrial design curriculum includes a fifth year during which students engage in a yearlong independent thesis project culminating in an exhibition. “It was the intuition of all of us—my mom, dad and guidance counselor—that this was the right program for me,” Beeda recalls. Embarking on a journey far from his home in Nellore, India, Beeda was excited to explore topics that would complement his design coursework.

As a fashion enthusiast, he began his study with an elective in patternmaking and found the process of deconstructing soft goods revealed a lot about what makes a design concept producible. “Looking back, it was really valuable to take things apart and put them back together,” he says. In a retailing course through the Martin J. Whitman School of Management , Beeda saw how consumers’ purchasing habits influence design and innovation. “I have always liked to learn a little about a lot of things,” says Beeda. In addition to fashion and retailing, he took courses in psychology, philosophy and economics. He gained new knowledge of a variety of interesting topics, constantly considering how they could relate to the design of technology.

Design for the Internet of Things

Portrait of a student with a blue wall as a backdrop.
At Syracuse University, Gokul Beeda has taken courses in a variety of topics that inform his approach to Internet of Things products.

Now in the development stages of his fifth-year thesis project, Beeda has come to focus on Internet of Things (IoT) products, which can transfer data over a network. IoT designers use research, technology and empathy to understand how people use devices like connected appliances, wireless inventory trackers or smart home security systems, and they draw on this knowledge to find solutions that can improve lives and environments. “IoT products give users an experience and record how they use the products. Then the data helps the products work better,” he says. “IoT is the sweet spot for design the way I see it, and the way I am learning it at Syracuse.”

Beeda’s academic exploration has led to a primary interest in health care. From the Fitbit to nutrition trackers and at-home heart monitors, he sees vast potential for IoT products in this advancing field. “Health care is cool now,” he says—and that’s a good thing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that six in 10 Americans have a chronic health condition.

As part of his final project, Beeda will outline a speculative concept to capture user data from people with chronic health conditions and use this information to help them understand connections between their activities and their health outcomes. For example, microbe monitors in home bathroom toilets, sinks or mirrors might identify potential red flags and give users more agency in their self-care. “There are medical grade tests and monitoring that could happen at home, but since they take place at a physician’s office, there is a stigma attached to them,” Beeda says. “I feel this is where a revolution is going to come: normalizing primary health care so it becomes preventative.”

Empathy to Beat Bias

Gokul Beeda draws on a whiteboard and smiles.
As he works on his fifth-year project, Beeda knows a commitment to understanding user needs is vital to effective product design.

Normalizing and destigmatizing self-care technologies can be a challenge when product designers are unfamiliar with users’ perspectives. For example, if a designer doesn’t use an essential oil diffuser, they wouldn’t know that users with anxiety may change fragrances throughout the day in response to certain stimuli. In essence, Beeda explains, product designers don’t know what they don’t know. Therefore, they must strive to employ empathy. As part of the design thinking approach, they identify problems, observe users and build understanding; then they design, test and implement solutions. Empathy is a major factor, perhaps very notably for people with health conditions and those with disabilities. “Innovation shouldn’t stop at the average person’s experience,” says Beeda.

During a course on consumer goods, Beeda studied disability design expert Elise Roy’s views on inclusive, human-centered design as a force for innovation. “The takeaway is that good design for disability is good design for everyone,” he explains. Examples include the bestselling OXO Good Grips swiveling vegetable peeler, which was designed for people with arthritis, and SMS texting, which was initially conceived for use by deaf people.

Now in his senior year, and with a growing understanding of how to apply empathy to design solutions, Beeda jumped at the chance to enroll in DES 400 Inclusive Design Intelligence ++, an interdisciplinary course offered through the Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars experiential entrepreneurship program at Syracuse University Libraries. Led by industrial and interaction design professor Don Carr and inclusive education professor Beth Myers, the course is open to undergraduate and graduate students from any school or college at the University. Some of Beeda’s classmates were students of InclusiveU , an initiative of the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education, which is committed to higher education opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.                           

Innovation shouldn’t stop at the average person’s experience.

—Gokul Beeda

“I’m very proud of InclusiveU,” says Beeda. “It’s one of the largest programs that helps students with disabilities experience college life with everyone else—from dining halls to residences and the entire learning experience.” Still, there is potential for more users to benefit from the program. There are plenty of opportunities to solve problems for people with disabilities of any kind. Beeda and other students are looking at Blackboard, the virtual learning management system used at Syracuse, to consider the potential for speech detectability and visual elements that could improve the user experience not only for students with disabilities, but for all.

Beeda emphasizes that understanding user needs does not happen intuitively but from studying and actively trying to comprehend other people’s experiences. The fall semester of DES 400 began with getting to know the users—in this case, students with disabilities—and Beeda says that’s the right start. He knows this work will build on other new perspectives he has gained and inform his final project research. “Empathy is not something designers can just say that we are using, it’s something we need to work on every day.”

Betsey A. Brairton

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • The Martin J. Whitman School of Management

    The Whitman School develops entrepreneurial managers who will become leaders in an era of global competitiveness. Programs are built around the major driving forces in business today: entrepreneurial management, globalization, use of technology and leadership.

  • InclusiveU

    InclusiveU brings students of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want to experience college life in a fully inclusive setting to Syracuse University.