How can we design engagements and approaches in the online space that help to build empathy and capture the intimacy of face-to-face interaction? Designer and experienced online educator Leah Heiss outlines some strategies to harness creativity and enrich the online experience for us all.

In our house we are up to day 48 of isolation due to COVID-19. We have respiratory issues in the family and decided that the less anxiety-inducing route was to operate at stage 3 restrictions prior to them being brought into play, officially.

Through this isolation our kids are exploring the best way to catch up with their friends. FaceTime via mum’s phone is used to navigate through the latest Lego build and Google Hangouts helps the high schooler to stay connected with friends. It’s also a way to share origami, book binding, claymation and miscellaneous creative endeavours.

Children are using online platforms in really creative ways and scaffolding the experience with toys, artwork and experiences. So what can this teach us about ways to work remotely moving forward? How can we enrich our online experience and really empathise with others in a time of lockdown?

Lately I’ve been revisiting some of the research that underpinned my Masters, titled ‘Empathy and the Space Between’.1 The research explored the role of wearable technologies in providing a sense of empathy for those who were remotely located. Pragmatically, I worked on a series of garments and artefacts that sensed and transmitted heartbeat between remote wearers.

Why? To facilitate the same embodied experience of empathy that we have when we are face to face with another person. The design work was scaffolded by research into the cognitive architecture of empathy, particularly the role of mirror neurons in enabling us to understand the lived experience of other people. I watch you drink a cup of coffee and the neurons firing in your brain are mimicked by the neurons in my brain. It’s as if I am drinking that cup of coffee myself (except that I don’t drink coffee anymore).

In the decade since my Masters was published, the mirror neuron/empathy relationship has come under some fire (see Greg Hickok’s book The Myth of Mirror Neurons 2). Yet it’s still worth pondering, particularly at a time when remote empathy is a hot topic.

To bring us up to speed on the mirror neuron proposition, here is a quick paragraph from my thesis about the field:3

In the 1990s researchers identified neurons in the premotor cortex of a monkey that were activated when the animal was observing goal-related actions such as grasping or reaching.4 Subsequent research demonstrated that a similar system exists in humans.5 These ‘mirror neurons’ are activated when we observe another biological being interacting with an object and fire in the same sequence as when we personally undertake the action — the drinking coffee example above. In situations where a robot arm is interacting with the observed object, or when the object is merely observed but not interacted with, the neurons do not fire. They require that the action be undertaken by another species ‘like us’ in order to activate. Mirror neurons have been heralded from broad sources as key to human empathy, action recognition in human development, and fundamental to the development of language and culture.6

So, what might the mechanisms be for encouraging and eliciting empathy in the online space? How can we design engagements and approaches that enable people in Zoom, Skype, Teams catch-ups to empathise with each other in the same way they do in the face to face context? A small touch of the shoulder here, a handshake there. All these small acts of intimacy help to build trust and empathy between people — and we don’t have them anymore.

I teach design practice and design leadership in the Master of Design Futures (MDF) at RMIT. The MDF is a fully online course with students from most Australian states and others from Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia. In the MDF we’ve been thinking about how to enrich online experience for a few years now and have prototyped a range of strategies. Some of these are relevant to the current scenario and others not so.

Throughout 2018 we partnered with Bolton Clarke, providers of aged care and at home care services, to deliver the One Good Death experience. One Good Death focused on improving the end-of-life experience of people living under the care of Bolton Clarke. The concept of a “good death” was defined as one that recognises the whole-of-life contribution of people living in aged care, or in the community, as they near death.

Working in a sensitive space such as end-of-life requires great empathy and our concern was that our regular modes of engagement (Zoom and Slack) would be too flat to enable thick bonds to form between participants.

This was compounded by the fact that students participating in online studies often experience a sense of isolation.7   The lack of tactile engagement in the online space can engender a feeling of separation from one’s colleagues or friends, who appear as disembodied heads in a video-conferencing interface (ditto our current situation).

In order to address this disengagement, and to increase a meaningful sense of presence in the online collaboration space, we developed and disseminated the One Good Death Workshop-in-a-Box (WIAB) to the MDF cohort.8   The toolkit contained materials that were intentionally open-ended and exploratory — string, soft clay, crimped paper, craft sticks — with students free to incorporate tools of their own. The contents of the box provided participants with the materials to explore a sensory design response to the concept of “one good death”.

Image: The One Good Death Workshop-in-a-box(es)

Temporally, the concept involved all students receiving their box at the same time, and seeing each other in real time on Zoom as they opened their boxes together. Even though physically distant, participants were connected by the materiality of the toolkits and throughout the session were encouraged to experiment with materials and create design works to share with the group.

What we found was that introducing materiality into the online engagement enabled people to bond in a different way. They observed each other in the practice of making and shared their outcomes in real time on Zoom and Slack. The crafting process s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n the transactional nature of the media. We were ‘hanging out’ and having a shared experience rather than just exchanging information. Much in the way that kids play and share over web interfaces.

Now, I’m not advocating sending out materials in the post anymore — we know the COVID-19 virus can live on cardboard for 24 hours and plastic for three days.9

However there are certain things that we can do to enrich the online scenario and introducing materiality is one of these. Below is a snapshot of materials and stationery supplies that were scattered in my domain. Most of these would be at the fingertips of your co-workers and collaborators. Asking people to bring things to the conversation and actually doing things together can help to introduce a playful element to the interaction.

Image: Stationery from around my house.

Research has also demonstrated that playfulness can alleviate stress. As Magnuson and Barnett suggest:

…playful individuals reported lower levels of perceived stress than their less playful counterparts, and more frequently utilized adaptive, stressor-focused coping strategies and were less likely to employ negative, avoidant, and escape-oriented strategies.10

Asking your co-workers to do a quick sketch or make something physical and sharing it on Zoom can be a great way to shift the tone. Virtual icebreakers can also help to set up a more empathetic environment for your meetings. This can be as simple as asking all participants to bring something that makes them feel creative/safe/funny and sharing these with the group. My advice to the MDF students is to ‘keep it simple, keep it safe’. (For those Lord of the Rings fans, this is an adaptation of what Gandalf advises Frodo to do with the ring: “keep it secret, keep it safe”).

These ideas tie into the concept that when we see people doing things our brain is reading this and responding. In a time of limited body language we need to supercharge our engagements, and scaffolding them with creativity and materiality is one approach.

In our experience of teaching design in the online domain, introducing an experimental and material approach to remote connection can deliver great rewards. While using the WIAB we encouraged participants to scaffold this with their own materials, sourced from around the house. The outcomes of these experiments were playful and evocative.

The work of Joni Wicks (below) demonstrates this scaffolding of the WIAB to include materials such as custom-made fuzzy felt icons, wool and jubes. Her reinterpretation of the traditional journey map into a three-dimensional diorama, replete with candy, is a wonderful representation of the lived experience of an ageing woman nearing end-of-life.

Image: Joni Wicks emotional journey map.

Zoom, Teams, Skype and Webex are the places where we meet, work, exercise and socialise. So let’s get creative and think about ways to enrich these spaces to help us empathise with our friends and colleagues on a deeper level.


Dr Leah Heiss is a designer and Co-Director of the RMIT Wearables and Sensing Network. Her wearable health technologies include Diabetes Jewellery; biosignal sensing emergency jewellery; and swallowable devices to detect disease. Facett, the world’s first modular hearing aid that Leah designed for Blamey Saunders hears, won the Australian Good Design Award, CSIRO Design Innovation Award, a Premier’s Design Award and three government iAwards. Leah’s work is part of the Museums Victoria heritage collection and she has exhibited at galleries locally and globally. She teaches through RMIT’s Master of Design Futures and her teaching practice focuses on health sector innovation.

This article was originally published on Medium and is republished here with permission.

  1. Leah Heiss, “Empathy and the Space Between: Investigating the Role of Digitally Enhanced Apparel in Promoting Remote Empathic Connection” (Masters Diss., RMIT University, Melbourne, 2018)[]
  2. Gregory Hickok, The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition, 1st edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014).[]
  3. Heiss, “Empathy and the Space Between”.[]
  4. Dan Zahavi, “Beyond Empathy — Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity”, in Evan Thompson, ed., Between Ourselves — Secondperson Issues in the Study of Consciousness (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2001)[]
  5. Vittorio Gallese and Alvin Goldman, “Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading”, Trends in Cognitive Science, Volume 2 (December 1998): 493–501[]
  6. Giovanni Buccino, Ferdinand Binkofski and Lucio Riggio, “The Mirror Neuron System an Action Recognition”, Brain and Language, 89 (2004): 370–376[]
  7. Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton and Marcus Grant, “Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space”, Journal for Education in the Built Environment 5, no.1 (July 2010): 27–64[]
  8. Leah Heiss, Matiu Bush and Marius Foley, “One Good Death: Tactile and haptic co-design media to engage participation and empathy in redesigning end-of-life experience”, in Larissa Hjorth and Klare Lanson, eds., The Routledge Companion to Mobile Media Art (Routledge, forthcoming)[]
  9. Apoorva Mandavilli, “How Long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?”, The New York Times,, accessed 25 March 2020[]
  10. Cale Magnuson and Lynn Barnett, “The Playful Advantage: How Playfulness Enhances Coping with Stress,” Leisure Sciences 35, no.2 (2013):129–144.[]