Walk In My Shoes: A school curriculum and service system dedicated to transforming bully behavior and the bystander effect.

By Melissa Cliver, Sr. Strategist, Adam Michel, Creative Director, and Nick Pollock, Sr. UX Designer
Inspiration and the tipping point. 

At Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a research team has been putting 1,000 participants through a variety of immersive VR scenarios to measure empathy at scale. Complementary exploratory efforts have led to the discovery of so-called mirror neurons in which the same neurons fire in the brain when an activity is taking place, as compared to when the same activity is simply being viewed. Additionally, experiments in body visualization and “perspective-taking” have been met with positive, dramatic results in empirical medical studies that focus on the what happens within the brain when it is engaged in an immersive VR experience. The culmination of these claims is that VR is one of the best ways to deeply feel what it is like to walk in another’s shoes; in essence, to take on their perspective.

Sacrificial scenario.

To explore this in more depth we have decided to use “sacrificial scenarios” in order to plot out what could be as a conversation starter. The effort is intended to help us think about possibilities in the context of making things that matter, and to sketch out the interactions and experiences between humans and technology, which includes service touch-points and a business case.

Key questions and impact areas.

Who might benefit from developing empathy in a fully immersed VR world? To start we imagined a symbiotic future in which empathy and technology were in unison. From there we created a vision for user impact and inclusive design that would serve a large vulnerable population: students who are bullied, the bullies that taunt them, the bystanders that knowingly or unknowingly allow these experiences to happen, and finally the structural link of the nationwide school system.

The wicked problem.

Over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year and out of that alarming statistic, approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying. Additionally, 17% of American students report being bullied 2 to 3 times a month or more within a single school semester. Below is an all-too-familiar dynamic.


On the bus.

Every day on the bus coming home from school Alex is harassed by Jamie. He asks her why she wears that thing in her hair and other accusatory questions in a mean and intimidating way.


The bus driver is concerned and frequently sees issues like this on the bus, but feels it is not his job to intervene. He feels like a bystander and does not know what to do.


Back at the shop.

The bus driver has a workplace training tool that helps him understand the best approach for navigating difficult bullying situations. He is educated about bystander behavior in the form of a teaching moment by recreating a bully scenario. The bus driver sees various situations that he can review, and even participate in, to build confidence so the next time he sees a dysfunctional interaction he does not have to just keep his mouth shut in fear of losing his job.

Immersive experiences are impactful in new ways. The bus driver can make selections that meet his needs for learning. He is given the ability to model his behavior in a simulated environment first, while learning coping mechanisms that mirror first-hand experiences.


At school and home: a multi-narrative VR experience.

In health class the kids are super excited to try VR and in this lesson they learn about bullying and bystander behavior.  The parents are given the option to review the experience as well. Part of the bullying program recognizes that bullying can also be happening at home. Getting the parents to also try out the curriculum could have additional impact.

In the Principal’s office: data analytics and action plan.

The Principal receives a report on the social interactions, choices, and concerns based on the anonymous data collected from the VR experiences. She also seeds vital information into the database, helping others know what is going on in their school with the goal to target their efforts and measure results.

The above system aims to help schools determine the frequency and target areas of bullying behavior, as well as gage the effectiveness of their current efforts. Knowing the scope and magnitude of what is going on within the school’s ecosystem can help the Principal and advisory board choose appropriate strategies to respond with, which in turn will help kids develop socially, while maintaining individual privacy.

Information visualization-based reports help the Principal quickly see where she needs to plan, educate, and facilitate new learnings. A call center is available to her that provides social workers that are able to support her as she plans updates to her curriculum.


Key touch-points.

In the system users can take on the narrative of any character. A single user could play the part of multiple characters, all within the same experience, which builds perspective on a difficult situation. The intent is to create the powerful outcome of empathy via the immersive tool. Utilizing technology in this manner can result in a paradigm shift with regards to what it means to “design” for an experience. The system uses blockchain technology to secure identities and allow a healthy curation of data. Externally, scenarios such as this can introduce opportunities for new organizational models and characters within the service system.

Starting the conversation.

We are not quite at the tip, but we are nearing the point. As a society, technology and human centered design can support dreams, disseminate important information, and influence behavior for good. We have at our fingertips what we need to connect, learn, and care for one another. In the not too distant future, AI and mixed-reality, along with advances in micro-technologies and the medical field, will transform the way in which we live.

When we think of this behavioral techno power as illustrated with our concept Walk In My Shoes, we see that the tipping point has two sides. As Jeremy Bailenson from Virtual Human Interaction Lab states: “When I think about virtual reality, I think virtual reality is like uranium: It’s this really powerful thing. It can heat homes and it can destroy nations. And it’s all about how we use it.”

Creating empathy tools for bullies and immersive interactive teaching moments that offset the bystander effect is one way immersive technology can support positive behavior change. As exploratory researchers, experience and digital designers, and developers who build these tools, we need to plan ahead, be prepared with human centered design principles that support a social good, and be a part of the conversation now.



*Illustrations by Susan Maddux, UX Design Partner at Passion Project

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