2020 McMurtry Lecture to focus on empathy in teaching and design

Alison Murphy Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The role of empathy in teaching and design will be discussed as part of the College of Information Sciences and Technology’s annual George McMurtry Award Lecture next week. Alison Murphy, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, will talk about how her experience of using empathy to design systems when she worked in industry an information technology project manager, and how it drives her lessons as a teacher.

Murphy will deliver the McMurtry Lecture at noon EDT on Tuesday, Nov. 10. The talk will be delivered via Zoom and can be viewed live at

“In industry, I was designing systems for my users and the backend of the systems were great, but the system interfaces were clunky and confusing to users,” said Murphy. “It frustrated me to be implementing systems that my users didn’t find user-friendly.”

She added, “I went back to school to study how we can connect with our users in a more meaningful way.”

Murphy, who earned her bachelor’s degree in the College of IST in 2004, returned to Penn State to pursue a doctoral degree. It was during that time that she was introduced to a design thinking framework by IDEO, a global design and innovation company. The framework follows the traditional system development life cycle format, but emphasizes empathy, creative ideation, prototyping and usability testing.

Now, as an instructor, she draws on that framework in her class assignments, encouraging students to design systems for users who are not like them. In the spring 2020 semester, Murphy’s students designed mobile health apps for individuals with conditions that are underrepresented in the design space, such as schizophrenia, PTSD and visual limitations.

“This encourages them to listen, observe and learn from others, and requires them to shift their perspective in the way they look at system use and design,” she said.

Through her lecture, Murphy hopes that faculty attendees will apply some of the concepts she will discuss in their own classrooms.

“When we neglect to empathize with our users, it can result in IT systems that cause frustration, decrease productivity and even unintentionally exclude certain users,” she said. “As teachers who are training the next generation of IT professionals, it’s important that we give students the awareness and tools they need to develop systems that are both well designed and inclusive.”

Murphy’s approach, combined with overwhelming positive student feedback, is what led to her receipt of the college’s George J. McMurtry Faculty Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award, which recognizes IST faculty members who consistently provide an exceptional learning environment.

“Students have reported Dr. Murphy to be organized, a good communicator, caring and fair,” said Ed Glantz, teaching professor of IST and member of the IST Awards Committee. “Students have also given high marks to the ‘value of learning’ in her courses.”

He added, “She is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about her subjects, and genuinely cares about her student learning and success.”

Last Updated November 02, 2020