5 Minutes
   //   Jul 29, 2020

How Empathy Works in Design Thinking

Priyanka Jeph

Design thinking is a humanized and creative way of solving problems. It’s human-centered, It's iterative, It’s cohesive, It’s feasible, It’s productive. It comprises five core phases: empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Design thinking has been embraced by the world's top design-oriented brands including IBM, Google, and Apple to create an absolute connection with the users. Design thinking is not just applicable to the design industry and practiced by designers, It is applied across a variety of industries, organizations, and practices.

The goal of design thinking is to let people feel free from the standard processes by focusing on human needs, create improved products, services, and work culture. It's a way to approach the problem and encourages collaboration while solving a problem.

  1. Design thinking creates relevant solutions for users.
  2. It aims to re-frame the problem to identify various possibilities before coming to the solution.
  3. The common set of five phases is a capable and practical way of accomplishing goals.
  4. Design thinking aims to connect the mindsets of people in an organization to bring out the best in them.
  5. It helps to think of the conceptual complex problems through the way, skills, and mindsets of designers.

Therefore all people involved in the process of design thinking, are responsible for creating a product that is user-centered, aesthetical, functional, and commercially viable. In this article, we will explain the phase of empathy and how to create an insightful empathy map. 

Empathy in Design Thinking

Empathy is the first phase of the Design Thinking Process. It is the ability to understand people and see the world through people's eyes, and it is to step in people's shoes to feel what they feel. It is an intentional attempt to keep aside preconceived notions and uncover the real unspoken needs to truly resonate with the users.

This encourages creating solutions that are sustainable and focused on all areas that affect in a long term. According to the design researcher Froukje Sleeswijk Visser, there are four phases of research within empathy and in each phase, the relation of the practitioner with the user changes.

The 4 Phases of Research in Empathy

  1. Discovery — The process of discovery begins with identifying and approaching the users. The aim of the phase is to identify the behavior of users and discover the unspoken reasons that affect their behavior and choices.
  2. Immersion — Literally stepping into the user's shoes is an immersion to the phase of empathy. It is to relive user's experiences of life, perform the same activities, and fully immerse in the life of the users to understand the ones we are solving the problem for.
  3. Connection — This phase is about resonating with the observation, engagement, and experience of the user's life to create a connection, a deeper personal understanding of the needs, problems, and challenges of the users. This is where you resonate with the users and create empathetic insights.
  4. Detachment — Detach and implement the learning from empathizing to define and ideate with a clearer understanding of the user's life.

There is always something new to learn about users. Conducting detailed and well-planned research following the four steps mentioned above can help create valuable user insights that assist in creating an empathy map to further Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test in the process of Design Thinking.

Gaining Insights from an Empathy Map

Empathy maps help to externalize user research and create a shared understanding to make decisions and uncover unspoken needs and insights. It is a tool that helps to connect with the ideal user and relate with them in the right way.

As explained by the Neilsen Norman Group to create a solution that really works in the long term it's ideal to create an empathy map. An empathy map is a simplified visualization of the information in hand about particular users.

There is a thin line between empathy and sympathy. When you empathize it is to feel and share someone's experiences, feelings, and attitudes. Sympathy is feeling sorrowful, pity, and sorry for their troubles.

Empathy map has taken the enterprises by storm. It has been featured in the Stanford D School curriculum of Design Thinking and also as “Three Creativity Challenges from IDEO’s Leaders.” by David Kelley, founder of IDEO, and his business partner Tom Kelly at Harvard Bussiness Review.

The format of the empathy map varies, but all of them have common core elements and purposes. The revised empathy map is a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard sketch divided into different sections with the user at the center. Xplaner founder and the Empathy Map creator. Dave Gray originally called it the big head exercise.

The Empathy Map is divided into 7 parts and each one is correlated to another.

  1. Who are we empathizing with?
  2. What decisions do they make?
  3. What do these users see?
  4. What do they talk about?
  5. What do they do and what are their lifestyles?
  6. What do the defined users hear about?
  7. What do they think or feel?
The empathy map
Updated Empathy Map Canvas ©2017 David Grey. Photo credit: David Gray, Gamestorming, Empathy Map Canvas, http://gamestorming.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Empathy-Map-006-PNG.png

Successfully gain insights from the 7 sections of the Empathy Map (Instructions)

  1. The empathy map can be created individually or can be done as a group exercise.
  2. Start by defining the goal and mentioning the identified users, to define who will be the subject of the empathy map and the final product.
  3. On a whiteboard or a big chart paper, sketch the "Empathy Map Canvas" with all 7 sections.
  4. Write down key observations on Post-it notes and color code them for further understanding a negative observation from a positive or neutral one and for segregating pain points and gain points.
  5. Fill in the sections one by one.
  6. Once the empathy map is completed, make an observation, list down insights based on what seems important and interesting? New or surprising? What are the common connections between different sections? and separate unexpected needs from expected needs.

An empathy map is an essential method for simplifying and humanizing products, services. A collaborative focus on this process offers unique emotionally resonant user experiences.

The round-up

When a product deeply connects to a user's desired purpose, it gets easier to create an experience and a brand that connects. Such experiences of products or services tend to remain meaningful to the users. Adopting an empathetic approach in design thinking isn't easy but it helps create a loyal user base and empower brands who apply the phases of design thinking.