Empathy in focus: Design Thinking during disruption

Today, the uncertainty around us is overwhelming. The world is saturated with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). However, we need to manage our daily lives, improve, create, and deliver. Design Thinking (DT) methods provide us with a chain of systematic approaches to tackle the novel beast head-on and conquer. The DT process takes us from identifying the customer problem, analyzing it, coming up with ideas, validating solutions via prototypes, introducing them to others to receiving customer feedback. Yet, under the disruptive global pandemic, customer empathy is the key. But why?

Customer empathy research creates a deep understanding of the issue at hand, especially when what we earlier knew is no longer valid in the VUCA environment. The new norm and related changes in customer’s pains and needs must be thoroughly understood. According to DT principles, emphasizing requires that the customers’ issues be approached both from the favourable and endorsing position and from the more constructive aspects – challenge the existing! There must be a dialogue and an interaction between the Service Designer and the customer. The empathic insights in design are derived from three types of knowledge, that of

  1. Customer needs. Deliver Design Thinking course remotely for the first time.
  2. Delivery language (culture, information media). English with international participants.
  3. Technological. Zoom and Miro. Which together provide a complete frame for knowledge construction and therefore enables empathy.
Design Thinking with Leonardo DiCaprio.

How did we manage in reality?

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Laurea Design Thinking Masterclass 2021 was organized fully online. Instead of chit-chatting with fellow students in the classroom with post-its and whiteboards, most of us sipped our coffees alone in front of the laptop screen – at home.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all methodology for bringing new ideas to life, empathy is a key feature in the human-centred design thinking processes. Several tools have been developed to support an empathic design process. We were able to grasp some of them during the two intensive sprint days.

Empathy in design means leaving the office and becoming immersed in the lives, environments, attitudes, experiences and dreams of the future users. According to Katja Schimmel, design students should become process experts with context-sensitivity and a human-centred systemic view.

Digital tools are not ideal for expressing emotions and for capturing various human traits such as empathy. In digital communications, empathy requires special attention.

We listed our key takeaways from the Masterclass, which can be useful when deepening empathy in remote Design Thinking processes.

Four takeaways

  1. Design Thinking online requires excellent planning and preparations. For example, ready-made Miro templates can make the process smoother if there are many first-time users.
  2. Use creative tools to enhance empathy. For example, we practised our listening skills by introducing each other to the group and did most of the exercises in groups of five persons to build closer connections.
  3. Keep the team motivated with digestible content and “learning by doing”. When one has a passion to learn, small technological challenges cannot stop them.
  4. Patience, humour and mutual support – oh no, a gigantic photo of Leonardo DiCaprio just invaded our Miro board! A good laugh (and solid technological skills) help to overcome most of the challenges.

Written by Anna-Sofia Joro and Jukka Kuusela

SID MBA Students at Laurea University of Applied Sciences

Inspiration, sources and references

Baird, Nathan (2020): MarketingMag.com: Why ‘Design Thinking’ is as relevant during COVID-19 as ever

Cankurtaran, Pinar and Michael B. Beverland, Industrial Marketing Management: Using design thinking to respond to crises: B2B lessons from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic

Kelley, D. & Kelley, T. (2013): Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Crown Business.

Kouprie, M & Seeswijk Visser, F. (2009): A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of user’s life in Journal of Engineering Fesign, Vol. 20, No.5, October 2009, 437-448

Köppen, E., & Meinel, C. (2014): Empathy via Design Thinking: Creation of Sense and Knowledge. Design Thinking Research, 15–28. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-06823-7_2

Smith, Laura (2021): Tampere University of Applied Sciences: Empathy in remote work communication : a qualitative case study

Thakur, Anupam MD, MBBS; Soklaridis, Sophie PhD; Crawford, Allison MD, PhD; Mulsant, Benoit MD; Sockalingam, Sanjeev MD, MHPE (2021): Using Rapid Design Thinking to Overcome COVID-19 Challenges in Medical Education

Tschimmel, Katja (2022): Creativity, Design and Design Thinking – a human-centred ménage à trois 

Tschimmel, Katja: Design Thinking (remote) Masterclass, September 3–4 2021. Laurea University of Applied Sciences, Finland

7 thoughts on “Empathy in focus: Design Thinking during disruption

  1. I very much appreciate you sharing key takeaways of the weekend with everyone! I would broaden their applicability also to non-online aka face-to-face interaction, as they are so valid in any format.
    Especially what you mention in point 2 made a lasting impression on me, even though my realisation of the learning experience from the task during class only came to me some days later: we were learning ways of working in DT almost through play when introducing ourselves to each other. To me, therefore, a great DT process speaks to the “child” in us that doesn’t even think about what there is to learn because it is so captivated by the activity itself. That was truly engaging!

  2. I truly enjoyed reading this post! There was a perfect balance between factual writing and humor elements, which I though to be a smart way to go in a given type of non-academic writing. From a psychological perspective, such combination makes one experience certain feelings (humor in this case), which, in return, makes the text more memorable and one, which a reader wants to go back to.
    Additionally, I appreciated a visual element with the catchy illustration of a famous actor – this made the post stand out among a number of texts within the Service Design category.
    Finally, i found the topic of this writing to be very current. It might be interesting to read this post again in a few years, in realities of a different time in the future.

  3. Pingback: Empathy in focus: Design Thinking during disruption — Service Innovation & Design | SIx design hats

  4. I liked your blog a lot – especially your humorous touch! You described the Design Thinking course and its contents very well. As you told, it was quite a learning experience; inspiring two-days course where we were able to grasp some tools, and learn by doing. I was actually quite surprised how well those exercises worked online. In addition, we were able to know each other which I found very important. Like you said, we design students should become experts with human-centered systemic view. I think we succeeded to build a foundation for that.

    Great takeaways from the session, thank you for sharing!

  5. Hello Anna-Sofia and Jukka (and Leo)! Thank you for your humorous and thoughtful post.

    I feel you’ve captured very nicely the complexity of the current environment, reflected on how the course was managed under these conditions and come away with interesting takeaways.

    Being, as we are, immersed in the current situation can make it hard to attain some distance on matters to appreciate the totality of it’s effects on us. Naturally some have an advantage of having worked and studied pre-pandemic, but what of those who have only just started on these paths?

    I’m keen to learn a bit more after having read your post and will make a point on coming back to your inspirations, sources and references. Thank you again!

  6. Thank you for bringing up the meaning of empathy in service design! This is an important subject, because empathy is a key element when creating human-centric services or innovations, but in today’s virtual world empathy is not an easy task.
    So, that said, I especially liked how you applied empathy in a digital context. Today, work life demands us to develop new skills to navigate in virtual environments with each other, where reading social cues, body language and facial expressions is quite hard. Also, it was nice to look back to our study weekend and think about what we learned from design thinking from an empathy perspective!

  7. Empathy in digital services and innovation is increasingly important as more of the society relies on communicating online. I’m glad that it is more thought about – there are many improvements needed! Not only in terms of usability but also pleasure and fun in using digital services and communication platforms.

    Digital development has been seen as work for engineers and men. Having more designers, women and collaborators from different backgrounds has helped to provide better digital services and emphasize empathy in the creation process. It is also important that not only creators, but also users are involved in the creative process, making it possible to create more suitable products.

    Empathy is especially important for the sake of learning online, since not everything can be transferred (at least as efficiently) in digital format. The human factor, showing how things are done hand-to-hand and communicating in the same space face-to-face is missing in digital communication. This means that also trust building is harder, as well as bonding; two important things that would increase understanding and empathy. In this case, a student is the customer of the teacher, learning from them, but things are created together with the customers and communication should therefore be two-directional.

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