Empathy is the superpower you need to design truly innovative services

In today’s world of complex systems and processes, people seek simplicity and real value. At the same time, companies’ competition for people’s attention is fiercer than ever. They face the challenge to differentiate themselves from competitors to gain the loyalty of their customers. Design Thinking might be the way we can add real and lasting value for people when designing new services. 

Design Thinking is not just a toolkit it is sometimes thought to be. It’s more than that. It’s a strategy. It’s no coincidence that the most valuable companies in the world have Design thinking at the core of their business.

One of the key aspects of Design Thinking is empathy. Empathy is derived from the principle of human-centricity in Design Thinking. To solve global problems like the climate crisis, we need to enhance our empathy for all living creatures and the whole planet. In this blog post, we want to explore empathy as a superpower of not only individuals but organizations, too.

Empathy helps designers to gain better understanding of the users’ needs, desires and emotions, which helps to design services that not only fit users’ needs but are joyful to use. In other words, empathy helps to create services that provide the users with better service experience. Empathy simply helps designers to understand better the context of the problem as they immerse themselves in the world of their users.

Empathetic Design Techniques

Design Thinking makes use of several techniques that are associated with empathy. For example, creating a stakeholder and system maps gives the designers an overview of the environment they’re working in. Field research methods such as observation helps the designers to understand users’ behavior. Interviewing the users and analyzing their responses gives designers even deeper insights in how to create a service experience that does not only satisfy the users’ needs and desires but their emotions, too. Insight maps can be used to visualize the results, to identify challenges and to find solutions to them.

The designers can also use methods which don’t require them to be in direct contact with users to understand them. Creating personas means that the designers define user personas with characteristics describing their needs, expectations, emotions and limitations. Personas can be used to test different scenarios when designing the service. Personas also help the designers to keep in mind that they are designing services for actual people. User journey maps can be used to track a user’s service experience, their emotional state during the service path, and to spot the user’s possible pain points in it.

Enhance Your Empathy

Do you consider yourself not empathetic enough as a person? The good news is that empathy can be practiced and reinforced. Even though empathy basically is an individual characteristic or a skill, we can practice it through training and discussion. Through direct contact with the users, we can better immerse ourselves into their world and their experiences. Role-playing helps us to understand the challenges the users face in their everyday life. With prototyping we can test how our ideas work with users and we can receive valuable feedback from them.

Picture of prototyping exercise with Legos
Practicing prototyping at Laurea University of Applied Sciences

When talking about Service Design and Design Thinking, creativity and empathy walk hand in hand. But it’s not just creative and empathetic individuals that design great services. Organizations and businesses need culture that fosters creativity, and for that they need to enforce empathy as a part of their strategy. To succeed in this, the organizations must encourage their employees to step into the users’ lives and motivate their empathy. Cultural changes do not happen easily, and they take time. Successful organizations understand that and make the investment.

To learn more about enhancing your empathy read The New York Times Guide How to Be More Empathetic.

The blog post was written by Otso Saarikoski and Katja Varjela, Laurea University of Applied Sciences students in Service Innovation and Design MBA programme.

References

Kolko, J. 2015. Design thinking comes of age. The approach, once used primarily in product design, is now infusing corporate culture. Harvard Business Review, September 2015, 66-71. Accessed 23 September 2022. https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age

Kouprie, M & Sleeswijk Visser, F. 2009. A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user’s life. Journal of Engineering Design. 20 (5), 437–448. Accessed 23 September 2022. https://laurea.finna.fi/PrimoRecord/pci.proquest35179856

Mootee, I. 2013. Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Accessed 23 September 2022. https://laurea.finna.fi/Record/nelli01.2550000001111847

Tschimmel, K. 2021. Creativity, Design and Design Thinking – A Human-Centred ménage à trois for Innovation. Perspectives on Design II. Ed. Springer “Serie in Design and Innovation”. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-79879-6_1

Tschimmel, K. 2022. Design Thinking. [lecture]. Held 2-3 September 2022. Laurea University of Applied Sciences.

Tschimmel, K. and several authors. 2022. Are They or Are They Not? Creativity and Innovation Affairs. Mindshake. Accessed 23 September 2022. https://canvas.laurea.fi/courses/5873/files/1318988?wrap=1

7 thoughts on “Empathy is the superpower you need to design truly innovative services

  1. I really like your focus on empathy and how this extends beyond other people and to all living creatures and the planet. I also appreciate how you go beyond simply using empathy to solve problems, but to also create delightful experiences for them.

  2. Any practice focussed on human needs a humane touch. Service design is definitely no exception. Well written and nicely approached from beginning till end. One aspect that is often overlooked is the empathy not just towards end users but also among the designers themselves towards each and every member of own team and make own team mate feel that their input / good or bad ideas matter. Sometimes, it may be overlooked when aiming towards deadlines and pressure to perform in many corporate or performance based working culture.

  3. Indeed ! Your blog points toward very important factor in any creative process including design thinking and service design. Empathy is essentially important factor for any human centered practices. Empathy in a process of designing, not just towards end-users but also towards fellow teammates during design process should not be overlooked.

  4. This post could, like literally, be written by us as well. 😀 Seems we have picked up on the same vibes regarding the importance of empathy and how it’s a skill that can be developed. Great minds, huh 🙂

  5. Great blog, Otso and Katja!

    Thank you for recommending The New York Times Guide How to Be More Empathetic. It makes some excellent, very simple recommendations that, as designers, we should all take on board. For example, taking steps to better understand your biases and privileges.

  6. Great blog.

    What do you think, do we need to use some statistical tool to test how significant the responses are? If not, how can we be confident in the decisions we make?

  7. I second the other comments mentioned here, empathy is very important and it is good that you thought about it in the context of not only understanding and solving problems but also creating delightful experiences for others. And as mentioned, empathy is a skill you can use in different areas in your life, not only toward beneficiaries, but also your colleagues, neighbors, friends, family and even the shop clerk: making you a nicer, kinder and more patient and understanding person also outside of work!

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