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Empathy balloons — a game for inclusive design

A simple, cheap and engaging game to build empathy for people with diverse needs, especially those with cognitive and/or dexterity issues.

Empathy Balloons objective

Most people, and especially those working in digital teams, understand that design for inclusion is important and desirable. However, this understanding is often limited to a focus on accessibility for people with sight loss. In particular, 0.5% of the UK population who are registered as blind or partially sighted.

An onus on sight loss can skew peoples understanding of accessibility.

An onus on sight loss can skew peoples understanding of accessibility by forgetting the more numerous needs of people with motor control, cognitive, hearing and literacy issues.

Consequently, empathy balloons is a game for inclusive design that focusses on the needs of people with:

  1. attention deficit impairments, like ADHD (±4% of adult population),
  2. motor control dysfunction (±9% of population),
  3. temporary/contextual attention and dexterity limitations.

This game helps design teams and stakeholders…

  • address perceptions of accessibility and inclusion,
  • build empathy for user groups with diverse needs,
  • understand how they benefit from inclusive design (auto-complete etc.),
  • create better designs through inclusive practices,

…by living with temporary disability via one-handed device use and impaired attention.

Empathy Balloons example

Alzheimer’s Society Digital team demonstrating group play.

Number of players

1 to infinite.

Duration of play

15 to 20 minutes, including briefing and post-game discussion.
More time might be needed for larger groups and for more complex scenarios.

Material required

This game works best with some physical space, but it can work in a boardroom setting. To run a good session you will need a:

  • smartphone, or small tablet, for each participant,
  • balloon per participant,
    • (sharing a balloon, ping-pong style, is also possible)
  • ‘complex’ process to complete, like booking a ticket,
    • (ideally relevant to the person, group or product)
  • space unencumbered by obstacles and trip hazards.

How to play

  1. Provide a briefing about inclusive design and why it is important for business.
  2. Devise a scenario that is engaging, complex and focussed;
    1. a task that involves typing and form validation is ideal,
    2. a task that also involves the product/service is even better,
    3. search, sign-up, booking and check-out type tasks work well.
  3. Stand the group in an open space with a balloon and their smart device;
    1. see variations if standing is not possible.
  4. Attempt to complete the task(s);
    1. consider ‘interview as interruption’ to add attention stress.
  5. Reflect on how easy, or difficult, the task was:
    1. versus normal,
    2. in terms of mental and physical effort, errors and time taken,
    3. if their device, especially its software, helped, or hindered, them in any way.


Standing, or sitting?

The act of standing is a complex activity, both mechanically and neurologically, and will contribute to the intensity of the game. However, if standing is not possible, or practical, sitting will also work.

Without balloons?

The game will work without balloons where a secondary activity, which requires attention, can run concurrently with the smartphone and its task.

Question and answer

Try to maintain a conversation, question and answer style, in parallel with the smartphone task. Simple questions like “where are you going on holiday this year” are enough to distract the participant from their primary task.

In larger groups, the noise from multiple conversations will further enhance attention stress. Conversations can also form the third level of attention during balloon play (if you’re a cruel facilitator!).

Paper balls

In a pinch, you can loosely scrunch printer paper into a ball. This can also be a good way to quickly demo the game fundamentals with yourself before buying balloons. Balloons are a superior choice for the objectives, and enjoyment, of the game.

A3 works best. Ultra-mega bonus points for using the print-out of that awesome accessibility audit you did (which no one read!).

First to finish!

In team play create additional stress by creating a competition. The first to finish the scenario wins. Note: all participants should still finish the game. Care needed to keep the participants motivated and focussed after the first participant completes the scenario.

Further reading


By Rik Williams

I write about how to collaborate to design simple, usable and inclusive information experiences that make the lives of customers easier. Read more in Categories and Tags.

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