All about Empathy: The core of Design Thinking


Empathy is ideally considered as the core element in Design Thinking and Human-Centred Design. To understand exactly what empathy is and why empathy is such an integral part of Design thinking, read on. In this article, we’ll look at the basic idea of empathy along with how it helps design thinkers create solutions and how a lack of empathy results in product failure.


What exactly is empathy?


In a normal definitive context, empathy is the ability to witness the world through other people's perspective, to be in their shoes, and feel what they feel. Even though no one can experience things exactly the way someone else does, we can at least attempt to dip our feet as deep as possible. To attain that, we need to put aside our own preconceived ideas and choose to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others instead.


In Design Thinking, empathy is a deep understanding of the problems of the people you are designing for. It involves learning their difficulties and uncovering their latent needs. To achieve that, we need to understand people’s environment, as well as their interactions with the environment.

With empathy, we can understand people’s emotional as well as physical needs along with the way they see, understand, and interact with the world. It also makes us understand the overall impact of these traits on their lives, specifically within the contexts being investigated. Empathic research is majorly concerned with their motivations and thoughts (for instance, whether they prefer binging a show rather than going out). This approach is inherently subjective as it involves finding out what people mean rather than what they say.


Empathize with the problem people are facing


As we’ve seen in the previous article, “Empathise” is the first stage of the Design Thinking process. In this stage, as a designer, the main goal should be to gain an empathic understanding of the client’s perspective and the problem they wish to solve. This involves observing, engaging, and empathizing as per their view of the world.


To empathize with people, designers usually immerse themselves in their physical environment to gain a deeper understanding of the issues, needs, and challenges involved.

Depending on the dedicated time limits, one must gather a substantial amount of information at this stage. In this stage of the Design Thinking process, you will develop understanding, insights, experiences, and observations to build the rest of your design project.


Empathize methods

Some of the most-performed Empathise methods include:

  • Ask What-How-Why and Ask the 5 whys

  • Conduct interviews with empathy

  • Build empathy with analogies

  • Use photo and video user-based studies

  • Engage with extreme users

  • Bodystorm

  • Create journey maps

However, each person you are involved with might require exclusively modified techniques as per the problems they’re facing.


Empathy vs. Sympathy


This is one question or should we say confusion people have in mind most of the time. Many people confuse both the terms as one. If you’re one of them, let us clear your doubt here: Sympathy is more about showing concern for the wellbeing of another creature, but to sympathize does not necessarily mean that you should experience what others experience deeply. Also, sympathy mostly involves detachment and a sense of superiority. When we sympathize, we project pity and sorrow for another person. This acclaimed feeling of pity and sorrow usually rubs people the wrong way, hence it is useless in a Design Thinking process.


In basic definition, Empathy is the ability to understand people's feelings as our own whereas Sympathy is the ability to take part in their feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune.

In this process, we look into the thought process and understanding of people we design for, to create a solution that can help them. We do not look for opportunities to react to them, instead we absorb what they’re feeling and going through. In order to achieve that, we visit their natural environments to learn how they behave and conduct interviews to know more about their mind map.


Why Empathy?


Since the industrial revolution opened the gates to bulk goods, mass consumerism has been an ever-growing part of the world. However, with time, the one-size-fits-all approach to solve problems began to show signs of inadequacy. The truth is, most people harness the power of “averages” when it comes to designing the basics of their product which is a terrible way to plan a solution for people.


Another prominent issue our mass consumerism is facing is the high rate of waste generation. In the past decade, our “hearty” consumption has turned global warming into an imminent crisis that now challenges the way we live and even survive. Empathy is basically about solving the problem, keeping in mind the waste reduction. Through it, we can create solutions that are sustainable and focused on all areas that can affect us in the long run.


One prominent example to support this is the lesson the US Air Force learned in the 1940s. During this era, aviation accidents were very frequent, amounting up to 17 crashes a day. Initially, they presumed that the reason behind it was their switch to more complicated and faster planes. After a few detailed research, they realized that the real reason was that they had designed the planes’ cockpits and helmets to conform to the dimensions of an “average” soldier’s body rather than being exclusive to pilots. In a study of over 4,000 air force pilots afterward, a surprising fact ceased the picture when they found that none of their pilots fell within the dimensions of the supposed “average” man. As a result, the air force then designed adjustable equipment to fit most of their soldiers’ bodies, thereby solving the problem. If only they realized and worked on the problem earlier, they would’ve saved so many lives!


The Conclusion


Empathy is the core value for designers and particularly for design thinkers as it allows them to truly understand the latent needs of the people they design for. There are three parameters of a successful product or service: desirability, feasibility, and viability. Designing with empathy is what separates a human-centered product like The Embrace Warmer from Google’s Glass. The good news at the end is that everybody can master empathy to become a great design thinker as we are all innately empathic.


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