Feelings of empathy do not usually translate into meaningful action.

How might we transform empathy into effective and scalable impact?

Every year, Microsoft invites design schools from around the world to develop concepts around a given theme and present at the company’s Design Expo. The theme for 2019 was “Empathy at Scale.” Our response was Catalyst, an exchange platform that allows communities to coordinate around the things they value, trading resources for mutual benefit. Through Catalyst, individual actions become collective impact. Catalyst was chosen to represent the University of Washington at the 2019 Design Expo.

Uyen Cao
Jeremy Barribeau
Isaac Jaeger
Nate Smith
Aleksei Zhurankou

Concept Direction
Visual Identity
Video Production
Summer 2019
10 Weeks

Microsoft Design Expo

1 Connecting Needs
   and Resources 

Catalyst aims to reduce the distance between the empathy we all feel when faced with iniquity and the actions we take in response. All too often, our reaction is limited to the feeling itself, as if merely being outraged confirms that we are good people. We therefore began this project from the premise that empathy is only worthwhile if connected to concrete action.

At the same time, we recognized the daunting complexity of structural problems that lead to issues like homelessness or poverty. For an individual to truly make a difference, their actions need to be part of a collective effort. Catalyst addresses these problems by providing a platform for individuals to come together around a common goal. Our innovation is not economic or technological, but social.

2 Recipes for Action

The heart of Catalyst is the Recipe, a user-generated set of instructions that govern an exchange of value. Recipes are essentially algorithms whose input and output variables are specified by the Recipe’s Creator. These variables can be people, places, actions, and the triggers that prompt an exchange. Recipes are based on principles of integration and ease of use — think IFTTT.

3 Recipe Walkthrough

The primary example we used to explain how Catalyst works was a Recipe called “Help Post Bail for Detained Immigrants!” We told the stories of two members involved with the Recipe—John, who saw the Recipe on the app and became a Contributor, and Maddy, the Creator of the Recipe.

National news provides constant coverage of terrible conditions at border detention camps. As the son of a South American immigrant, John feels empathy for people held there, yet is unsure of the right way to help. Catalyst provides a way for him to contribute while helping him realize that this issue is relevant not just on a national level, but in his local community as well.

Madeline has first-hand experience with the struggles of undocumented immigrants going through the court system. As an expert in her community, she knew the best way to help. Catalyst allows her to easily set up a transaction that she believes would gain wide support.

4 Building Community

This Recipe example was conceived in response to a real-world need. The issue of immigrant rights and the mistreatment of asylum-seekers at the border have been on our minds recently. We saw people on social media looking for ways to help and being directed towards Facebook Groups or GoFundMe pages. We wanted to see what a Catalyst response might entail. 

In contrast to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, Catalyst looks beyond the acute symptoms of structural problems and attempts to formulate responses to the underlying conditions. A community member can create a Recipe to raise funds to help cover their friend’s emergency heart surgery, but they can also create Recipes that subsidize healthier food options, facilitate neighborhood exercise sessions, or help with housework for convalescents.

5 Reflection

The course of this project offered an intriguing glimpse at the potential for designers to contribute towards social good. By taking a holistic view of the way in which structural change propagates and considering the potential of technological systems to influence behaviors, we were able to effectively speculate on what designing with empathy could mean at a scale beyond the singular user-persona of the typical human-centered design process.