In this moment of worldwide uncertainty, we could all use a healthy dose of empathy. While being empathetic helps us understand the experiences of others in our lives, this trait can be a major benefit in the design process, too. In fact, design firm IDEO notes that empathy helps designers better understand “the people you are designing for” in order to create better products and experiences. 

In this article, we’re going to explore how empathy can inform and improve the design process and why it plays such a critical role in design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a popular approach to solving problems through a design lens. Most designers follow a version of design thinking even if they weren’t formally trained in the approach. At the core of design thinking is a five-step process that leads design teams through a series of actions, from understanding a problem and brainstorming a solution to designing a prototype and conducting research. This approach will be very familiar to most user experience designers, who already use audience research, brainstorming, prototyping, and other tools to craft a successful final design. 

Why is empathy so important to the design process?

Empathy isn’t just important to the design thinking approach, it’s actually the first step. By empathizing with the end user, designers are able to better develop a solution that actually meets peoples’ needs. Empathy also helps designers understand not just which behaviors users choose, but also why they act the way they do, a powerful insight that can greatly improve UX design. Most UX designers already conduct user interviews and research, which requires an empathetic point of view to problem solving. 

How does empathy shape the end result of design?

An empathetic approach moves beyond transactional problem-solving, where a designer and product team help a user accomplish one particular goal. By focusing more on what the user feels, thinks, and wants, an empathetic approach to design creates solutions that meet deeper needs. Empathy also allows designers to “read between the lines” during user interviews to ensure they are creating solutions that address users’ emotions, expectations, and assumptions. This process ultimately creates design solutions that work better and produce less friction and frustration among end users. 

What are some practical ways to incorporate empathy into the design process?

If your design team already follows a design thinking process, you’ve probably incorporated an empathetic approach into your design work. If not, there are several strategies you can use to make empathy a powerful part of your design process. These include:

  • Avoid assumptions in your design. Test your preconceived ideas against what users actually say and do. 
  • Ask users how they feel when they currently use a product or service, then ask them what they wish they felt.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask users to go deeper into why they feel a particular way about a product or service. Ask for more context about their experience.
  • Look for “edge case” users who are using products or services in unexpected or new ways that your design team may not have considered previously. 

There are many additional ways to include empathy in your design work, so experiment with approaches until you find the right options for your team. Adding empathy to your design can greatly improve outcomes for both your colleagues and your users.