Stepping into Personas: Empathy as a Mode of Inquiry

Image of human stepping across the street.
From Mette Køstner / Unsplash.ocm

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, I was teaching my Document Design class, which not only integrates in-class workshops, but also an applied learning project where students design a deliverable for a local organization. This year we were creating social media and marketing assets for Wave Transit, our local public transportation organization. Though students tend to think of public transit in their own terms, often complaining about timeliness and routes, the goal of this project was to create digital assets for transit users other than the traditional student.

Applied learning projects like these can provide an environment where students learn empathy through inquiry. One major advantage of applied learning is what the National Society of Experiential Education calls authenticity:

The experience must have a real-world context and/or be useful and meaningful in reference to an applied setting or situation. This means that it should be designed in concert with those who will be affected by or use it, or in response to a real situation.

(National Society for Experiential Learning, 1998).

For me, this includes developing empathy for the people organizations reach and engage. For example, our bus system doesn’t just service students … an easy group for my class to empathize with. Wave Transit also services immigrants and lower class populations who do not have access to regular transportation.

Typically, I would have students ride the bus, observe interactions, and even interview various users. These are all qualitative research techniques commonly used in Design Thinking (DT), a popular problem-solving methodology used in many corporations and non-profits. But COVID restrictions made this kind of authenticity impossible.

To help students develop empathy as a mode of inquiry in online contexts, I used personas, or character cards, to step into the shoes of different Wave Transit stakeholders. Creating these personas also became a way for students to see how digital composing can itself be an invention tool … not just a rhetorical one. In other words, the goal of creating personas through digital composition is to see a problem in new ways through empathy … not just to persuade a particular audience of a predetermined solution. 

What is empathy in Design Thinking?

DT places heavy weight on developing new ways of seeing from a user or audience point of view. But empathy is a word often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is loosely defined as feeling sorry for someone, while empathy means “entering into” someone’s experience of pain (Wible, 2020, p. 407). We can feel bad for immigrants or the poorer population of Wilmington, but if this experience doesn’t change how we design information, then we are not deploying empathy.

Brené Brown illustrates the difference with a story. If you see someone deep in a hole and hungry, you might say, “Oh, that sucks.” You might even toss them a sandwich.  That’s sympathy. An empathetic person will climb down in the hole, hug the person, and experience the situation with them.  Here are just a few characteristics of empathy identified by psychologists:

  • To see the world as others see it by setting aside our perspective.
  • To be nonjudgemental, because judgment insulates us from feeling.
  • To understand another person’s feelings.
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. (Thieda, 2014)

If we are always creating digital texts from the designer or writer’s point-of-view then we’ll likely miss new opportunities to help our audiences and stakeholders. Students might sympathize with other transit users like immigrants and impoverished inhabitants, but they don’t necessarily think about the actual experience.

Figure 1. Design Thinking Process. Used with Permission: Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

There are five steps to the DT process, but developing empathy through observation is the first foundational step (see Fig. 1). For DT to work in applied learning, we must do more than observe. We must understand. Before drafting the first idea in their head, design thinkers will empathize with different users and brainstorm as many ideas as possible. DT’s focus on empathy is only a stone’s throw away from rhetoric and writing’s focus on the audience and user. But running an imagined audience through the rhetorical triangle or some other heuristic won’t develop empathy. Students need to “enter into” other perspectives through human interaction … but that is hard to do in a pandemic.

Building Empathy through Personas

In his recent article, “Using Design Thinking to Teach Creative Problem-Solving in Writing Courses,” Scott Wible shows how new writing genres inhabit the design thinking process. In other words, writing or digital composing is not just about developing a text. Through design thinking, digital composing becomes an invention tool that helps writers better engage multiple audiences and think through problems multidimensionally. 

Figure 2. Image of Half a Persona Sheet. Used with Permission. Author/Copyright holder: Gosia Pytel.

A persona usually includes imaginary or researched information that helps designers consider their choices from an audience or user perspective. Kirk St.Amant (2018) provides the following conventional categories: 

  • Demographic (who)
  • Contextual (cultural, linguistic, geographic, etc).
  • Behavioral (how might they behave as a viewer)
  • Attitudinal date (how might they feel about digital text or experience)

Though personas can be completely imaginary, the best emerge from experience or research. They should be as close to real people as possible. For example, students can create different character cards representing the immigrant population in Wilmington, NC. Students have to research who those people are, but they also think in more fine-tuned detail about the different kinds of immigrant experiences. What is it like to be a mother from Myanmar, as opposed to a young man from Nicaragua?

You can certainly print out a worksheet like Gosia Pytel’s, a design thinking expert that I follow (see Fig. 2). But students can also use their digital composing skills to create persona cards using any number of digital composing tools. Personas can be laid out on a PowerPoint slide, or you can use UX software like Adobe XD.

Personas don’t automatically develop empathy. Students can easily fall into a stereotype trap, but they do serve as a starting point for more inquiry. Once they have a kind of person in mind, they can research that perspective more closely by finding primary material on the web like blogs, YouTube videos, or social media interactions. My students often look through public social media posts or blogs. In their research, they might also find qualitative research already done by other researchers. In the future, students could even interview people via Zoom or visit a relevant Facebook group. 


Many scholars argue that the field of technical communication is taking a “social justice turn” (Jones, 2016).  Teaching digital composing through a more empathetic lens can provide more opportunities to share these ways of thinking with our students. Design thinking will be key to integrating empathetic processes into our digital writing, especially as we look to understand problems from diverse perspectives. Stepping into multiple ways of seeing should now be a key step in the digital composing process.


Brown, Brené. (2013). Brené Brown on empathy. Retrieved from

Interaction Design Foundation. Design thinking. Retrieved from

Jones, N. N. (2016). The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 46(3), 342–361.

National Society for Experiential Learning. (1998). “Eight principles of good practice for all experiential learning activities.” Retrieved from

Pytel, Gosia. (2020). Tool: Personas (empathy). Retrieved from

St.Amant, Kirk. (2018). Contextualizing cyber compositions for cultures: A usability-based approach to composing online for international audiences. Computers and Composition, 49, 82-93.

Thieda, Kate. (2014). Brené Brown on empathy vs. sympathy: Empathy never starts with the words, “At least…”. Psychology today. Retrieved from

Wible, Scott. (2020). Using design thinking to teach creative problem solving in writing courses. College Communication and Composition, 71(3), 399-425.

About Author

Lance Cummings

Lance Cummings is an associate professor of English in the Professional Writing program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In addition to researching histories of rhetoric, Dr. Cummings explores rhetoric and writing in technologically and linguistically diverse contexts in both his research and teaching. You can find more of his blogs on various topics at

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