Understanding Empathy in Design: Part 1

Lately, talk of empathy has been buzzing around the business world. Indeed, empathy is a valuable skill with many case studies that prove the measurable business value of its practice. At work, the practice of empathy has a myriad of benefits; boosting productivity, fueling collaboration, building leadership, and gaining customer satisfaction. Empathy, too, has its place in the world of design. It is known as the first stage in a practice called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a mindset and approach to design – encompassing learning, collaboration, and problem solving. In practice, it is a structured framework for identifying problems and challenges, gathering information/conducting research, which leads to the generation of potential solutions, refinement of the ideas, and finally the testing of those solutions.

While walking a few miles in someone else’s shoes sounds simple enough an exercise, as designers, we have to do more. By moving past having just a cursory understanding of our audience, we better understand the context they carry with them, their interpretations of the world around them. We can develop a deeper respect and understanding for their experiences, perspectives, and culture, in turn enabling us to design and produce something meaningful and useful.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is NOT the feeling of compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person may encounter (that would be sympathy). At its simplest, empathy is the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people.

Empathy is also an innate human quality. It’s built in! According to Psychology Today, “Neurological research confirms that humans and other social animals, especially primates, are equipped with “mirror neurons,” which give us the capacity to display, read and mimic emotional signals through facial expressions and other forms of body language. Mirror neurons help us share emotional experiences and become more empathetic toward others.”

Sympathy versus Empathy

But why do we need it?

Empathy has a myriad of social and personal benefits. For starters, it facilitates and brings out the helping behaviors that are already innate within us, rather than being forced, so that we can behave in a more compassionate manner towards each other.

In practicing and developing your empathy skills, you will better understand the needs, motivations, and fears of those around you. You can more clearly understand the perception that you create in others with your own words and actions. You will better understand the needs of your customers. You will learn how to better motivate others, to convince others of your opinions. To name a few.

Why design with it?

Ultimately design is about solving problems. But the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach to consumption and problem solving has, in this day and age, begun to show signs of inadequacy. Solving for the majority is no longer enough. Customers expect solutions that are tailor-made to them, and ultimately the businesses that can’t provide that are quickly going by the wayside.

It is not just an expectation either. The truth is, that we can only ever design a successful, desirable product or service when we fully understand people’s needs, wants, experiences, and preferences.


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