Why Do We Need Empathy in Design?

Empathy is the first stage in the design process, which I talked about in my last blog. Designers need to understand the reasons why people act, think, and feel certain ways, in order to create solutions to their problems. Imagine trying to solve a problem without figuring out why people were having the problem in the first place!

What is Empathy, Exactly?

The dictionary definition of empathy is, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, “sympathy implies sharing the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have”.

Empathy for Design

Empathy is the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand their lives, and to solve problems from their perspective. Human centered design means that the people you’re designing for are actually your guide to innovative solutions.

According to IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit, empathy is, “a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for”.

Empathy for Business

Empathy is crucial to business success. Three key parameters define a successful product or service: desirability, feasibility, and viability.

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

It’s not enough for technology, humans, and businesses to exist. Designers need to create a desirable product or service.

If designers create solutions without the insight of goals and desires from their users, they might make solutions that totally miss the mark. We can only fully understand and design a product or service when people’s needs, experiences, wants, and preferences are met and understood.

Empathic Research Methods

Empathic Research is more about people’s thoughts and motivations. This kind of research is designed to allow researchers to be an observer and gather information on complex issues, before making their own assumptions. There are several research methodologies you can choose from, based on the type of problem at hand, but here are a few ideas to get you started.


This method is about immersing yourself in the “real world” to experience the customer journey first hand. During this method, the researcher takes on the persona of the user and “walks in their shoes” to complete a task. There are a lot of ways you can perform this method, like shadowing, observing, or immersing yourself.

Real Word Example:

Self-administering a fake injection as part of month-long exercise designed to build empathy for patients of a weekly treatment. Photo courtesy of IDEO.

IDEO wanted to ensure that a pharmaceutical company was empathetic to the small inconveniences of injections over time. The designers planned a long-term month immersive experience for 35 clients of the pharmaceutical company. The objective was to understand the pain points of a weekly injectable drug (no pun intended).

Each participant took home prototypes, instructions, and the profile of a patient whose role they were assuming. All participants had to store their prototypes in the fridge, give themselves mock injections weekly, and document their experiences. Each week they also were presented with various challenges and everyday mishaps, for which they had to figure out how to manage.

At the end of the month the team had ideas for improving the patient experience, packaging, and instructions.


This method is a traditional one-on-one interview with the user. The objective is getting the people you’re designing for and hearing from them directly, in their own words. Conducting the interview in the person’s space can help you learn more about a person’s mindset, behavior, and lifestyle. The process is based on hearing exactly what the people are saying, not what you think they might mean. What you hear is just one part of the interview, observing body language and surroundings are important contextual points.

Real Word Example:

Mexican Pesos with different denominations

IDEO worked with World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. The goal was to identify opportunities for new and more accessible savings products to serve low-income Mexicans.

The IDEO team conducted interviews to understand how people save their money. During the project they kept getting the response, “I don’t save money.” Eventually the IDEO team learned that low-income Mexicans don’t think of their savings methods in the same way a bank would.

The team learned that money was stashed in pockets of shirts, given to grandparents, spread between coffee cans, etc. A key insight that came out of the interviews was that low-income Mexicans don’t save money for the sake of it, they save for particular things, like for a house or budgeting expenses. This insight led to the idea of a project-based approach to savings called, “Mis Proyectos” (My Projects).

Analogous Inspiration

This method helps to get a fresh perspective on your problem by shifting the focus to a new context. When it isn’t easy to bring clients face-to-face with users, we can create analogous experiences to foster empathy. This can help organizations see familiar ways of working with fresh eyes. Carefully crafted “feels like” situations can help them draw parallels between the two experiences.

Real Word Example:

Cape Coast, Ghana

As part of a three-month project to increase mobile money use in Ghana, IDEO partnered with TIGO, a telecommunications company. The goal was to help the company improve their existing mobile tools and increase customer activity. Reaching more low-income communities would provide better access to formal money management.

During the inspiration phase, the IDEO team realized that there was value for Ghanians to see a visible community of users of the product. The team sought to understand what a visible community meant by seeking analogous examples. A few examples they compared to was Arsenal Football Club fans in England, Lyft drivers in the U.S., and Catholics celebrating Ash Wednesday.

The idea that visible community would drive adoption of mobile banking was a key piece of their research. Evidence of participation, public displays of identity, and support from the community were the keys to a solution.

More research methods:

  • Assume a beginner’s mindset
  • Ask what-how-why
  • The 5-whys
  • Build empathy with analogies
  • Use photo & video user-based studies or journals
  • Engage with extreme users
  • Story share-and-capture
  • Bodystorm
  • Create journey maps
  • Storyboarding the experience
  • Shadowing
  • Love letter/Breakup information
  • Cultural probe
  • Co-creation

One response to “Why Do We Need Empathy in Design?”

  1. […] Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I’ve discussed empathy in my last blog post Why Do We Need Empathy In Design. In this blog we’ll be moving onto the next step in the design thinking process, […]


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