Why do we need empathy in the design process and how to gain it?

Introduction to empathy

Most of us can probably recall products or services where it is clear that usability has been so far off from the priority list that the product/service is unreasonably difficult or even impossible to use.

Photo: A real life example of an ATM machine in a town of Räpina, Estonia. Photo source: https://www.delfi.ee/artikkel/84142766/foto-rapina-pangaautomaat-endiselt-liiga-korgel-tadi-peab-seisma-pangel-et-rahamasinani-ulatuda

What is needed that these above-mentioned mishaps can be avoided and services and products designed are actually usable and desirable for their users? We believe the answer lies greatly in empathy.

Empathy helps designers to understand users better

With the spread of design thinking and service design over the past years, the role of a user and user experience has gained central prominence. For instance, Katja Tchimmel (2022) names design thinking as “the design of an alive and dynamic system of user experiences” and elaborates further by stating human-centered approach to be one of the five main principles of it.

The role of empathy is further addressed by Iris Motee (2013), who states that design thinking promotes empathy as it locates users at the core of everything and it encourages using tools that help better understand behaviours, expectations, values, motivations and needs. Brown (2008) describes the designer mindset with empathy as a personal characteristic to be able to observe the world from multiple perspectives.

But what is empathy in design and how can a designer use it in the design process?

Kouprie and Sleeswijk (2009) draw that despite the somewhat hazy common concept of empathy, it nevertheless is “related to deep understanding of the user’s circumstances and experiences, which involves relating to, more than just knowing about the user”. Kouprie and Sleeswijk have further presented their own framework for applying empathy in design, consisting of four phases: Discovery (designer enters the user’s world), Immersion (designer wanders around in the user’s world), Connection (designer resonates with the user to understand the feelings and the meanings) and Detachment (designer reflects to deploy new insights for ideation). They claim that in addition to that the fundamentals of empathy helps designers better to choose the techniques and tools and their order, this framework can help designers to plan their time accordingly as a process of empathy in design practice requires time and not spending unreasonably long time in only one or two phase and actually going though all the phases explicitly can enhance designer’s empathy. (Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser 2009.)

Tools and methods to gain empathy

In the SID Design Thinking Masterclass we were introduced to Mindshake’s Design Thinking Model Evolution 6², developed by Katja Tschimmel (2021), one of the several models in Design Thinking. The “E.62” model offers tools and methods to support divergent and convergent thinking during the design process. Empathy (E2) is the second step in the model and aims to better understand the context, users and their latent needs. The exploration phase introduces methods such as stakeholder map, field observation and interview. Personas, user journey map and insight map are used for visualizing users and their needs for all in the design process in the evaluation phase.

It is nice to realize that despite not using all the tools of the model we went through all of the four stages of the Kouprie and Sleeswijk Visser’s framework on the process of empathy. In the Discovery phase we approached the design challenge and the users’ problems with How might we? questions on Opportunity map and formulated Intent statement for selected opportunity, followed by User Interviews on selected design opportunity in the Immersion phase. We seeked to achieve emotional understanding of their feelings and meanings while collecting the findings on the Insight map and formulating the Intent statement in the Connection phase, and finally, ideated and Prototyped the solutions in the Detachment phase.

Conclusion

Empathy in the design process is not only a set of different tools and methods but also a designer state of mind and characteristics. Understanding the users’ latent needs is essential for developing products and services.

Written by Peegi Kaibald & Tiina Auer SID MBA Students at Laurea University of Applied Sciences.

Mindshake’s Design Thinking Model Evolution 6²
E1: Opportunity Map and Intent Statement (SID Students’ group work on Katja Tschimmel’s Miro board in Design Thinking Masterclass)

Mindshake’s Design Thinking Model Evolution 6²
E2: Interviews and Insight Map (SID Students’ group work on Katja Tschimmel’s Miro board in Design Thinking Masterclass)

Mindshake’s Design Thinking Model Evolution 6²
E3: Brainwriting and Clustering (SID Students’ group work on Katja Tschimmel’s Miro board in Design Thinking Masterclass)

Mindshake’s Design Thinking Model Evolution 6²
E4: Rapid Prototyping (SID Students’ group work on Katja Tschimmel’s Miro board in Design Thinking Masterclass)

Mindshake’s Design Thinking Model Evolution 6²
E5: Storyboarding and Concept Visualisation (SID Students’ group work on Katja Tschimmel’s Miro board in Design Thinking Masterclass)

References

Brown, T. (2008). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June 2008: 84-95.

Kouprie, M & Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009). A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user’s life (Links to an external site) in Journal of Engineering Design Vol. 20, No. 5, October 2009, 437–448.

Mootee, I. (2013). Design thinking for strategic innovation: What they can’t teach you at business or design school. Wiley.

Tschimmel, K. (2021). Design Thinking Master Class 3.-4.9.2021 material. Laurea University of Applied Sciences. Espoo, Finland.

Tschimmel, Katja (2021): Creativity, Design and Design Thinking – A Human-Centred ménage à trois for Innovation. In Perspectives on Design II. Ed. Springer “Serie in Design and Innovation”. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-79879-6.

Tschimmel, K. (2022). Design vs. Design Thinking. In Creativity and Innovation Affairs. (in process) Available only for SID students at Laurea University.

4 thoughts on “Why do we need empathy in the design process and how to gain it?

  1. Text explains comprehensively the role and the importance of empathy in design process & design thinking. I especially liked the use of references and different perspectives provided. As the writer concludes the empathy relates not only to design methods but most of all it is a mind set required when trying to create customer-oriented services or products.

  2. I loved the real life example of ATM machine installed somewhere in Estonia, used to define the significance of empathy in service or product design process. Writers very well summarized empathy and its important role as part of design process. As mentioned, process of empathy in design practice requires time for designer to completely understand user’s perspective, and going through all the phases of empathy (as defined) without leaving any room of confusion and doubt, should intensify the empathy of designers.

  3. You raised a very important and essential point about the design of services. The importance of empathy and knowing the needs of the target audience cannot be overemphasized. Too often, you have to see executions that are poorly designed and are done from the company’s perspective without understanding the user’s perspective at all. You also introduced an interesting framework by Kouprie and Sleeswijk for applying empathy in design. My interest arose to read more on the framework and subject. Very well written blog post.

  4. Yes, empathy is important. Like you mention in the article, “understanding the users’ latent needs is essential”, is what matters. Problem is, asking users what they need rarely gives us good answers – cars and horses and all that. Empathy in design is hard, because situations are often complex and difficult to understand and as designers we need to interpret multitude of signals to form a coherent picture of what really is happening…what is going on behind the curtain, so to speak.

    I’d like to make a clear separation between what users want and what users need, because it is easy to go with what users signal they want and miss the actual need driving that want.

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