In ME 236 'Tales to Design Cars By' this past quarter at Stanford, our students learned more about their relationships with others when they made an important distinction: feeling ‘for’ vs. feeling ‘with’ another person.

If you feel for another person, you will find evidence of your compassionate self. But something deeper occurs when you feel ‘with’ another person – empathy – one of the core values of design thinking.

In empathy we are capable of relating with another person and experiencing what they feel. During classes, we set them up to learn about empathy through a variety of experiences, provoking some wild insights, all driving toward learning about storytelling at the heart of the automobile experience.

In one memorable case, empathy took on some very interesting physical forms.

In one of our user interviews, something surprising shined through that really made us think. It was an interview with a young woman engineer and graduate student who talked about how complicated driving was for her if she *wasn't* wearing high-heeled shoes. The males in our class were visibly dumbfounded.

In her words, no car was made with her in mind.

As it turns out, driving without heels presented a problem for her. In wearing low-heeled shoes, or flats, or going barefoot, her foot didn't actually rest on the floor of the car. Rather, it floated above the pedal.

A heel was the only way to get that 'bridge' to make contact with the pedal and for her foot to rest firmly on the floor of the vehicle.

As shocking as it sounds, wearing high-heels was actually the most comfortable driving setup for her.

The male students, in a state of disbelief, volunteered to step into her shoes, quite literally -- and the shoes of high heel wearing women everywhere -- by squeezing into high-heeled pumps. To further simulate the experience, the male students gallantly promised to walk the distance to the van, over in a distant part of campus.

This presented us with a profound learning opportunity. We brought in a variety of (very large sized) women's pumps and had our male students experience the wonders of driving a car with a heel that doesn't make contact with the floor (or, rather, does so via a 5-inch heel).

Some of the comments exceeded my expectations (yet this was what I hoped we'd hear):

“It made me feel silly that I didn’t know that a female’s driving experience was so different from a male's. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about that before.”

The experience was fuel for what would become our final project, an immersive experience as a part of the Stanford EXPE (Stanford Design Experience), which we called our 'Car Story Factory.'

Often in this type of design research project we encourage our students to embody the end user via empathy as a metaphor. But sometimes you have to actually experience the physicality of another person ('drive a mile in her shoes') in order to naturally and fully feel with them to appreciate the design challenges.

In your work or research, how soon can you get to feeling ‘with’?