Anssi Grekula
Michihito Mizutani

A Hands-On Empathy Exercise

Most of the problems that really matter cannot be solved by just another mobile app. 

At Fjord Helsinki we wanted to combine Makeshop, our build-to-think process, with the sky-is-the-limit prototyping facilities of Aalto Fablab. In order to experiment with the combination we invited a group of multinational, multidisciplinary students and post-graduates on a one-week journey into service design and prototyping. Pushing the boundaries of where design can be applied, we decided to look into the everyday lives of the thousands of asylum seekers staying in reception centres around Finland.

The result was an exhausting, yet empowering week, as we co-designed new services in diverse teams. The participants included people from 11 nationalities, several backgrounds such as design, engineering, business and humanities, Fjord’s own designers and, most importantly, four asylum seekers from a local Finnish Red Cross reception centre.



Discovering empathy

Empathy is a critical ingredient especially when designing for an unfamiliar environment. Therefore, after design researcher Helena Sustar’s keynote on design for immigrants, we jumped on a bus heading to the reception centre. Wandering around, observing, and interviewing the inhabitants and staff was an immersive, eye-opening experience. We were also introduced to our new team mates: Arkan and Mohammed Jabbar from Iraq, Abdul Ghani from Afghanistan, and Omar Mohamed from Somalia. These gentlemen came back to Fablab with us in order to work with the teams for the rest of the week, providing valuable insights into the realities they face on a daily basis.

Into the making mood

Based on the findings from the field study the teams created empathy maps and described the current user journeys of asylum seekers. Having identified pain points, the teams went on to generate ideas for possible solutions, inspired by Phil Lindberg’s talk on Fjord Trends and the idea of Living Services. By Tuesday evening each team emerged from underneath the piles of markers, sticky notes, and play-doh with initial service concept ideas set in the context of a future user journey.

Wednesday morning began with a tour of the various tools available for making the teams’ ideas tangible: 3D printing, laser cutting, mobile app prototyping, and rapid electronics kits were all introduced, and the rest of the day was dedicated to putting these tools to proper use. Surprisingly, it turned out that Mohammed had prior experience in 3D modelling, which made him very excited to see his designs come to life through the nozzle of the 3D printer.


Prototyping the intangible

Facilitating the Makeshop in a Fablab for such a diverse crowd of people is problematic in its own way. It’s oddly tempting to use the fancy tools and fun materials just for their own sake; something we wanted to steer away from. At the same time, however, we encouraged the use of all means in order to make the service concepts visible and tangible. Pivoting was unavoidable and even desirable, as teams learned more along the way.

Basically, current methods of service prototyping are based either on human scale role-playing or miniature puppet theatre. Our teams turned to the latter, constructing table top user journeys on whiteboards laid on the tables. After the initial confusion, the teams started to sketch together, erase, and sketch again, moving Lego figures through the touchpoints. We even saw some small-scale electronics and interactivity applied on one of the journey representations. However, it’s tempting to use the cool machines just for their own sake, and the teams varied in their decisions about using all available tools and materials.

When the laser cutter was grilling out small plywood bicycles nonstop and participants kept sweeping around Fablab with serious and focused faces, we knew we had better step back and grab our cameras: The good beast had been unleashed.



Building a common understanding can be difficult within diverse teams. Especially the intangible service concepts can remain very fuzzy and unclear if there are no physical objects to refer to. That’s where we wanted to encourage communication through building together – in the spirit of Makeshop – and decided to ban the use of sticky notes (sometimes innovation calls for drastic measures such as this).

On Friday afternoon we hosted a public demo event, where the teams presented their concepts and prototypes live on stage, through video, and at a fair stand. Representatives from Fjord, Aalto, the Finnish Red Cross and the national 6 o’clock news were all equally impressed by both the quality of the concepts and their feet-on-the-ground nature.

The success must’ve been the result of the deeply co-designed nature of the solutions. The embedded asylum seekers pushed us from designing pseudo-useful, technology-driven solutions to marginal problems towards issues such as the stress and boredom of waiting for the asylum decision, barriers in mobility, and preparing for the local labour market. It wasn’t easy, and we sure learned many lessons. Nevertheless, this exercise proved that design through empathy and hands-on co-creation has the potential to tackle even the most pressing, complex problems of our age.


Anssi Grekula
Michihito Mizutani

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