Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s context, emotions, goals and motivations. In order to design great experiences, successful design firms actively search for empathic insights into their target group. In a design context, empathy serves a distinct purpose: to inspire design decisions in the early stages of the process. At IDEO, for example, the design team is so convinced about the positive effect it has on their projects that they actively advocate it to inspire other designers and innovators. Here, you’ll learn how you can develop empathy for your target group.
Using empathy in the design process is on the one hand about collecting subjective information and on the other hand about objectively analysing it. The best way to collect the subjective information is to embed yourself in the context of your target group and gain personal insights into the experiences they have. There are three different approaches for you to use:
- Looking at what people do
- Asking people to participate
- Trying things yourself
You should use them together to get empathic on an affective and a cognitive level. We will explain these approaches and how to use them. But first, we’ll take a closer look at the role of empathy in the design process and the four general steps you need to take in developing empathy for your target group.
“Design empathy is an approach that draws upon people’s real-world experiences to address modern challenges. When companies allow a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them—and transform their work, their teams, and even their organization at large—they unlock the creative capacity for innovation. ”
— Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard from IDEO, 2014
Why is Empathy Important in a Design Process?
By the mid-2010s, the design profession had experienced another major shift. Once, the move had taken it from designing products to services; by this point, however, designing experiences was the name of the game. Each shift means that you design for a broader perspective, and each shift builds upon the existing knowledge of the previous perspective. Take biking, for example. In the past, when you wanted to make a biking trip, you had to get a map of the area: the simple product which you could use to plan your own route. Later, services started to appear that would take this planning work out of your hands. You could go to a place (online or in the real world) to have a route planned based on your preferences. Now, when planning a biking trip, you can join an online bike community. You can get inspired by other peoples’ experiences and share routes.
The design profession has shifted from designing products, to services and now, experiences. Communities let people get inspired by other peoples’ experiences. This shift results in a bigger importance for developing empathy for your target group.
In order to design not only products and services but also experiences, you need to know different things about your users than you would if you were merely designing products. When you learn about people on an objective level, you can understand what they need for performing their tasks. When you learn about your target group on a subjective level, you can understand what they are aiming for and what they are feeling when they are trying to accomplish it. You need the latter for designing experiences. In the bike example, it is—therefore—less important to understand what steps people take to plan a biking trip than it is to know what emotions they would like to associate with it. Getting empathic insights is key in this process.
“The aim of empathic design studies is not to seek solutions for recognized problems, but rather to look for design opportunities as well as develop a holistic understanding of the users. Design empathy is not only information and facts but also inspiration and food for ideas.”
— Tuuli Mattelmäki, Finnish industrial designer, researcher & lecturer, 2003
The Four Steps in Developing Empathy for your Target Group
As we mentioned before, there are three approaches to collecting the subjective information that you need so as to gain empathy for your target group. Each approach involves four general steps. According to Froukje Sleeswijk-Visser, design researcher and co-creator of the context mapping method (a method that allows you to gather deep insights into what people feel and dream), these steps are:
- Discovery: enter the user’s world and make contact with the user. This will help you get into the right mind-set to understand the user. Let’s say you’re designing a new workflow for employees working at a self-service food court to improve their efficiency. Maybe you have never exchanged more than a few words with the people behind the counters of a self-service food court. You don’t know them. Walking around behind the scenes and getting a glimpse of the hours they put in and the limited space they have to move around in helps you get into the right mind-set. It triggers your designer’s curiosity.
- Immersion: wander around in the user’s world to collect qualitative data. This helps you take the user’s point of reference. When you start to collect data actively by participating as a member of the food court team, talking to them during coffee breaks and taking pictures of things that stand out to you, you start to experience the context from your users’ point of view.
- Connection: resonate with the user, and recall your own experiences to connect and create meaning. This step may occur naturally while collecting the data. For example, when you find out how irritated the employees are by the lack of communication about changing menus and special offers, you might recall how it felt when you were in design school and teachers forgot to communicate clearly about changing mandatory literature for the next exam! Not having the right information to do your job properly may lead to a feeling of helplessness. You remember how it feels. You understand and identify with their context and feelings. You have empathic insights.
- Detachment: step back into the role of designer, reflect and create ideas. While it may seem sufficient to get the empathic insights by following the previous steps, you need to look at your subjective data with a designer’s mind so as to translate the empathic insights into ideas. A feeling of frustration about the lack of communication may seem solvable by actions directed at the team manager at first. Even so, after creating an overview of the insights and reflecting on it more objectively, you can use the informal communication that is already used between team members to create solutions that will give them a stronger feeling of control.