teaching empathy through simulating diabetes

2 silver iphones laying across each other. Positioned against a pastel yellow scribbled background.

Jan 2022 - July 2022


Diabetes Design Initiative

My Roles

UX Researcher, UX Designer, Developer


Living with Diabetes is hard, and empathizing with that is difficult.

As one of the primary motivations of designers is to empathize with their audience, the DiaTrek project is a fully implemented diabetes curriculum which helps designers become empathetically equipped to work within the diabetes space.

the challenge

How might we create a curriculum which can inspire empathy prior to the beginning of working within the diabetes space?

Students in DDI traditionally started building empathy with their target audience when user research begins. Speaking with past students revealed that there is a desire to kickstart this process and start thinking empathetically earlier.

"I feel like it was a little overwhelming in the beginning because it's just a lot just thrown at you. Since I don't have family members with diabetes and I don't have diabetes, it was a little difficult for me to like understand really."

Leslie Aguiar, Past DDI Designer

the solution

DiaTrek is a one week experience aimed at simulating the cognitive burden of diabetes.

The features of this experience can be broken down as follows:


A bot is your diabetes toolkit.

During this week, students interact with the DiaTrek Slackbot, which creates a blood sugar value for each individual.

Students are able to test their blood sugar levels, take insulin, exercise, and log other events via commands to the bot, which will cause their blood sugar value to change over time.


Reflections as a learning opportunity.

Throughout the week, students also actively reflect upon the feelings, thoughts, and experiences they had simulating living with diabetes, both individually through reflection journals, and in group reflection activities.


Understanding the challenges of wearables.

A few students additionally were chosen at random to take on the challenge of “wearing” a fake insulin pump for 24 hours and going about their day as normal.This introduced the idea of how physical devices can also come with cognitive burden.


The DiaTrek Project was first fully implemented Summer of 2022, and is still being used today.

The implementation of DiaTrek as a portion of the DDI onboarding experience enabled our students to start thinking empathetically before even beginning their research in the space, generating opportunities for deeper and more focused discoveries.

I experienced a lot of frustrations related with eating out… there isn’t enough data online or in the menu for me to know the carbs.  And also the social pressures.

I would worry if I am calculating wrong and making a mistake. Will it lead to spikes/drops? How bad would that be if I had diabetes in real life?

What do you do when you’re going to friends houses to eat? Do you need to check in with them with every food they provide?

Taking a Closer Look


11 literature reviews and 15 designers interviews indicate opportunity for experience-based learning.


There is little research when it comes to teaching diabetes to people who are not directly involved with the disease.


Students want to be able to see and interact with different diabetes technologies.


Simulation techniques have been effective for teaching parents and healthcare professionals how to care for people with diabetes.

Because my literature review revealed that there has yet to be a diabetes simulation for teaching diabetes yet, this seemed like a ripe area for extra exploration.

I decided to code an interactive bot that simulates everyday diabetes tools.

testing & iterating

Meet the wizard!

My first round of testing was a Wizard of Oz MVP with one past DDI student designer, in which I acted as the bot for one day. This would help me validate my concept before spending the time coding.

From this testing, I noticed that the simulation didn't teach enough about diabetes pathophysiology— for example, my participant mixed up carbohydrates with calories, so she was constantly low!

need identified

Students need more basic diabetes knowledge to get the most out of the simulation.

iteration 1

I added Diabetes 101 as a prerequisite to the simulation.

The second round of testing consisted of a barely-finished slackbot and four participants— 2 DDI staff and 2 student designers.

This testing round lasted a full week and tested all of my curriculum artifacts, including daily reflections and the iterated Diabetes 101 course. From this testing session I discovered and changed two things:

need identified

Students found the process of recording and uploading daily VLOGs too time consuming.

iteration 2

I switched the daily reflections method to journal entries.

need identified

Students found some of the commands confusing despite documentation.

iteration 3

I made some language changes for clarity.

Following these changes, DiaTrek was officially implemented for the first time with two groups of students for DDI Summer 2022.

next steps

This project has many possibilities for future explorations. For instance, DiaTrek at the moment is type 1 focused, as I am a person with type 1. It would be valuable to further explore how the course could be changed to teach type 2, or maybe even gestational diabetes.

Additionally, DiaTrek lacks validation from other people with diabetes. This type of feedback would be valuable in shaping the course of this project moving forward as it continues to live on at the Diabetes Design Initiative.