Empathy – a Core Competence for Design Thinkers

The modern business world is fast-paced and highly competitive. Companies must stay innovative to answer the complex demands of the ever-changing market and business needs. Design thinking has found its’ way to larger organizations as an answer to simplifying the challenges of both modern business and technology. (Kolko 2015.)  

For business success, an empathic approach of design thinking is fundamental, as highlighted by Kolko (2015). It cannot be something extra – it is a core competence. But what is empathy, exactly, and how do you enable empathy as a competence? And how does it link to design thinking?  

Design thinking is a mindset consisting of processes, methods and tools for innovation that can be used in any organization by multidisciplinary teams, not only designers (Tschimmel 2022). While reading industry literature and articles we noted that empathic design and empathy are some of the key elements in design thinking, and included in all of the tools in one form or another. 

Picture 1. The iterative process of Design Thinking, empathy as one of the key elements. https://www.maqe.com/insight/the-design-thinking-process-how-does-it-work/

”Empathy is our superpower” – Teija Hakaoja, Head of Business, Design at Gofore Lead

Empathy is intuitive and a way to relate to the user’s circumstances and experiences. It is a natural skill that everyone has – and like any skill, it can be practiced. 

Understanding empathy as a concept is critical for a designer and it would take a deep dive to psychological research and literature to get to the core of it, but for businesses and their multidisciplinary teams applying design thinking, it can be enough if they instead use some common tools and frameworks to help them train their skills in empathy and to be more empathic in their work.  
One example of this could be the framework by Kouprie and Sleeswjik Visser (2009), that makes it easier to use empathic techniques in design. The framework consists of four concrete phases of empathy:

1) Discovery,
2) Immersion,
3) Connection and
4) Detachment.

A practical approach like this helps stepping into – and out of – the user’s shoes and builds the skill of empathy.  

Picture 2: Four Phases of Empathy by Kouprie and Sleeswjik Visser. https://thegreatness.studio/2019/empathy-for-conscious-design/  

During the first two days of our Design Thinking course for #sidlaurea 2022, we approached empathy from various angles by trying out some of the commonly used tools and techniques in design thinking, mainly based on the Evolution 6² model by Mindshake. We, for example, empathized with different student personas and created study plans best suited for each of them.  
At the end of the day, we feel that empathy means recognizing and responding to basic human needs in a simple yet effective way. This is a skill that can be developed by using well thought-out tools as described above. Even though empathy is already widely recognized in business, we believe there is still more to uncover – winning innovation comes through radically knowing the users and their needs.

Written by Sari Lindberg & Riitta Räsänen 

Hakaoja, T. 2022. Expectations for service designers’ competence. [lecture]. Held on 1 September. Laurea University of Applied Sciences. 
Kolko, J. 2015. Design thinking comes of age. Harvard Business Review September 2015, 66-71. 
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 Vol. 20, No. 5, October 2009, 437-448. 
Liedtka, J. & Ogilvie, T. 2011. Designing for growth: a design thinking toolkit for managers. New York: Columbia University Press. 
Tschimmel, K. 2022. Creativity, Design and Design Thinking – A Human-Centred ménage à trois for Innovation. In: Raposo, D., Neves, J., Silva, J. (eds) Perspectives on Design II. Springer Series in Design and Innovation , vol 16. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-79879-6_1

8 thoughts on “Empathy – a Core Competence for Design Thinkers

  1. Nice report on the ability that truly distinguishes us as humans. Empathy is a true superpower! Great insights about the significance of empathy in business. It’s truly beneficial to know that empathy can be developed by practice. The empathy framework in design is something new I’m eager to research further. It was fascinating to learn that there is a Creative studio in the Netherlands that specializes in creative empathy.

    • Thanks Milda! The framework did spark some thoughts, for example about how stop the empathy phase, in order to get in a “helpful mode” again instead of staying in the user’s world with them. There were also some interesting parts about how different circumstances can affect the designer’s willingness and motivation to be empathetic in the first place. Thanks for the tip about the creative studio, too 🙂

    • Thanks Rosanna! We certainly noticed that, also now by looking at everyone’s posts. Good sign that we all seem to recognise this 🙂

  2. Understanding user’s needs and hopes should be important for everyone in an organisation. If we are lucky the organisation recognises this. Some books like Lean UX and other agile practices promote that teams should interact with users regularly. In practice however there are more customer facing roles which possess more user information and feel the empathy stronger.

    How might we communicate the user empathy effectively within the organisation? I trust that during the studies I will learn some methods.

    • Coming from a history of customer-facing roles, I second this. Luckily there’s gradually more understanding of how all roles should be closer to the users, but the silo game is still strong. Everybody in the company affects the user experience one way or another, so indeed communicating that all over is interesting. From Katja’s class, the example of user photos on the walls at Airbnb premises was a powerful yet a simple idea. Would be nice to try that out!

  3. I enjoyed the flow of the blog, and how you manage to connect literature and workshop in class.
    The empathy framework is something new to me. Could you explain more about the detachment phase in the empathy cycle? Detachment in the empathy cycle sounds like a contradictory concept to me.

    • Thank you for the comment! I agree, at first sight it may seem so. The writers refer to the field of psychology when explaining the concept of empathy, and in there they find a few authors who have presented empathy in four phases. In the first phases the designer immerses themselves in the world of the user, and in order to become useful again and to be able to reflect on the experiences, they need to take a step back into being a designer again. It’s a way to provide some structure into the observation phase and make the most of it. 🙂 Check the article linked in the blog post for a deeper dive!

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