What Is Empathy in Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Guide

Empathy is the cornerstone of any successful design project. The extent to which you understand and empathise with your users ultimately determines the outcome of your design. Will it be user-friendly–an apt solution to the user’s problem? Or will it miss the mark because you never fully grasped where your users are coming from?

As a designer, it’s crucial to adopt a Design Thinking mindset. This means building empathy at every opportunity; getting to know your users, experiencing their pain points as if they were your own, and using this empathy to make smart design decisions.

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about empathy. Why is it so important? Where does it fit into the Design Thinking process, and most importantly, how can you become a more empathic designer?

Let’s get started!

  1. What is empathy and why is it so important?
  2. Where does empathy fit into the Design Thinking process?
  3. How can you become a more empathic designer?
  4. What are some key methods for building empathy?
  5. What comes after the empathise phase?

1. What is empathy and why is it so important?

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

It describes the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes; to truly see the world through their eyes in a given context or situation.

In a social context, empathy is often what drives us to take action. If we see people suffering or struggling, and we are able to empathise with their situation, we are compelled to help relieve them in some way.

Designers need to build empathy for their users in order to take the right course of action. It’s important to understand how the user feels when interacting with a certain product or interface; does the layout of this website evoke feelings of frustration? What emotions does the user go through when navigating this app?

In building empathy, designers can create products which truly please the user and make their lives easier. Without this empathy, the design process lacks that all-important user-centricity which often marks the distinction between product success and failure.

2. Where does empathy fit into the Design Thinking process?

We know that empathy is crucial—so where does it fit into the Design Thinking process?

Empathy is considered the starting point for any design project, and constitutes phase one of the Design Thinking process. During the empathise phase, the designer spends time getting to know the user and understanding their needs, wants, and objectives. This means observing and engaging with people in order to understand them on a psychological and emotional level.

The empathise phase requires you to set aside your assumptions. It’s human nature to assume that others will think and feel the same as you in particular situations, but of course this isn’t always the case. The first step in empathising with your users is to suspend your own view of the world around you in order to truly see it through your users’ eyes. When it comes to Design Thinking and human-centered design, it’s time to stop guessing and start gathering real insights about the user!

What is empathic design?

Empathic design caters to real user needs, rather than supposed “averages”. One of the main objectives of the empathise stage is to identify user needs and behaviours that are latent, or unarticulated. As a designer, it’s important to distinguish between what people say they would do in a certain situation, and what they actually do. In reality, users may have habits or desires that they’re not aware of, so it’s essential for the designer to observe the user in action.

Empathic research and design is not concerned with facts about the user, such as their age or location. Rather, it focuses on their feelings towards a product and their motivations in certain situations. Why do they behave in a certain way? Why do they prefer to do this instead of that? Why do they click here rather than there when presented with a particular screen or page? These are the kinds of insights you’ll uncover during the empathise phase, and they’ll help you to create user experiences that cater to your audience.

3. How to become a more empathic designer

Anyone looking to build a career in UX design will need to master the art of empathy. There is plenty of research to suggest that empathy is not a fixed personality trait; according to the largest ever study into the genetic basis of empathy, only 10% of the variation between people’s compassion and understanding is down to genes. This indicates that empathy can be learned and improved.

Before we delve into specific methods used during the empathise phase, let’s consider how you might train yourself to become a more empathic designer.

Practice empathy in your everyday life

You can become more empathic simply by making empathy a part of your everyday life—by flexing and training your empathy muscle, if you will. Make a conscious effort to observe those around you and empathise with how they might be feeling. The more you practice empathy in the outside world, the easier it will be to put yourself in your user’s shoes when it comes to your next design project.

The power of facial expressions

Research has shown that mirroring another person’s facial expressions can help you to feel what they are feeling. UCLA researchers found that empathic actions, such as mimicking someone’s facial expressions, trigger far greater activity in the emotion centers of the brain than when merely observing these facial expressions. You might be familiar with the almost reflexive action of wincing when you see someone stub their toe, for example. When engaging in conversations or observing your users, try mimicking their facial expressions as a way of building empathy.

Assume a beginner’s mindset (Listen, don’t judge!)

As already mentioned, setting aside your assumptions is absolutely critical when it comes to building empathy. As human beings, we all come with our own preconceptions, experiences, and misconceptions; this is how we make sense of the world around us. However, these can hinder our ability to build empathy. When listening to and engaging with people, get into the habit of suspending your own judgements and assumptions. You can think of it as a mental reset; assume a “blank” mindset, free of any preconceived ideas and beliefs. Really listen attentively to what other people are saying, and you’ll uncover much deeper insights about how they tick as a person.

Pay attention to body language

From the way a person stands and where their arms are positioned, to the tiniest of microexpressions; there is so much to be deduced from body language alone. In your quest to become a more empathic designer, learn to study and interpret these physical signals. For more insights on reading body language while engaging with your users, take a look at this two-part guide: Understanding body language in UX research—Part I and Part II.

4. Key empathy-building methods

During the empathise phase of the Design Thinking process, you’ll need to both observe and engage with your users. There are plenty of empathy-building techniques you can use to gain a deeper understanding of how your users tick. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular empathise methods.

Empathy interviews

One way to build empathy is by conducting empathy interviews. The key to an effective empathy interview is to structure it as an open conversation; don’t try to steer the session with a set list of questions. Remember, the goal is to uncover as much insight as possible—not to confirm or negate a preconceived notion.

The Stanford d.school provides some excellent tips on interviewing for empathy, such as constantly asking “why?” (even if you think you already know the answer!), asking non-binary questions, encouraging storytelling, and paying attention to nonverbal cues. One of the most important things to bear in mind when conducting an empathy interview is that you need to be present and attentive. Don’t be distracted by taking notes; set up a recorder or have someone there to take notes for you.

Immersion and observation

It is also extremely useful to observe your users in action, be it in their natural environment or immersed in a certain situation. Observing your users, either by photographing or videoing them, helps to identify needs, motivations, or challenges that they’re not aware of—and therefore not able to articulate.

There are several ways of observing your users. One option is to bring them in and observe them while they interact with the product, or problem, you are trying to design for. You might video them or record their screen as they navigate a website. Another option is to ask your users to keep their own photo or video journal over a certain time period, or while completing certain tasks in their everyday lives. The advantage of this is that your users aren’t so aware of being watched and may therefore act more naturally.

Extreme users

In their quest to build empathy and truly understand the problem that their users face, designers will often turn to extreme users. As UX designer Jack Strachan explains, extreme users help to reframe the problem and uncover new insights: “Extreme users’ needs are somewhat amplified. They need/want less or more of something to solve their problems. They often find workarounds to existing problems, unlike average users.”

Engaging with extreme users can help you to identify problems and needs that so-called mainstream users may have trouble voicing. By building empathy with both the “averages” and the “extremes” of your target user base, you are much better equipped to come up with innovative solutions. You can learn how to identify your extreme users here.

Constant curiosity: Ask what, how, and why?

Throughout the empathise phase, you should constantly be considering the what, how, and why of your users’ behaviour. The what-how-why framework can help you translate your (assumption-free) observations into more abstract user motivations. Divide your page into three sections and break down what you’ve observed as follows:

  • What? Refers to the details of what has happened: for example, the user took the following actions when entering their payment details on an ecommerce website.
  • How? Here you will consider how the user has completed these actions. What were their facial expressions? Were they exerting a lot of effort? Did they seem at ease, frustrated, or confused?
  • Why? Now it’s time to make some educated guesses about the user’s motivations and emotions as they complete these tasks.

The more you reflect on how and why your users might behave in a certain way, the more you can empathise with (and design for!) them.

Empathy maps

Empathy maps are another great tool not only for getting to know your users, but for sharing this knowledge across the wider team. As defined by the Nielsen Norman Group, an empathy map is “a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) aid in decision making.”

Empathy mapping requires you to consider your users in relation to four different quadrants:

  1. Says: Contains direct quotes based on what the user has said, for example during an empathy interview.
  2. Thinks: Considers what the user might be thinking, but may not want to explicitly reveal. For example: “Am I stupid for not being able to navigate this website?”
  3. Does: Looks at concrete actions the user takes, for example: refreshing a page, clicking a button, comparing different options before making a purchase.
  4. Feels: Considers what emotions the user is experiencing at certain points. For example: “Frustrated: Can’t find what they are looking for on the page.”

Empathy maps will also help you to define user personas, which you can learn more about here.

5. What comes after the empathise phase?

As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In order to create positive experiences for your users, you need to first understand their wants, needs, frustrations, and pain points. This requires building empathy, so make this the starting point of any design project.

After the empathise phase, you’ll go on to define your problem statement based on what you’ve learned about your users. This will then be followed by ideation, prototyping, and testing. But remember: the Design Thinking process is not linear, and you’ll often have to loop back to various stages in order to find the right solution.

Want to learn more about empathy? Here are 5 must-read articles about empathy and UX design. Want to learn how to run a Design Thinking workshop? Then this guide to Design Thinking workshops is exactly what you need!

And if you want to explore even further, here are some articles you’ll find helpful:

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