Design thinking is more than just a passing fad. Some of the world’s top brands including IBM, Apple, and Google have embraced the design thinking mindset in an effort to guess less and design products and experiences that truly resonate with their user base. Unlike decades prior, the one-size-fits-all, mass production approach is no longer enough to succeed and thrive.
Design thinking is a human-centric, iterative process to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems. It’s made up of five core phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The first step, empathy, draws on our ability as researchers and designers to see the world through other people’s eyes, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. We do this by putting aside our own preconceived ideas, adopting humility, and choosing to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others instead.
Empathy can be tricky, because when it comes to using empathy as designers, we have to do more than what is colloquially thought of as a “feeling.” Walking in another person’s shoes sounds easy enough, but moving past a perfunctory grasp of one’s situation takes time, effort, and a willingness to abandon one’s ego that is difficult to achieve.
It’s not an endless, uphill battle, though. Like many parts of digital product design, we can turn to systems and processes in order to get a head start on advancing empathy. According to design researcher Froukje Sleeswijk Visser, the 4 steps to promoting empathy in the design process are discovery, immersion, connection, and detachment. Let’s take a look at each to better understand how and why they are key to exercising empathy in the digital product design process.
The first step in this framework to promote empathy in design thinking is discovery. This is the part of the process where you enter the user’s world and make contact. The goal is to learn about the difficulties people face in addition to uncovering their unspoken needs and wants in order to explain their behaviors.
The key here is to absorb what people are going through and feel what they are feeling instead of reacting and immediately trying to “solve the problem.” As designers, our goal during discovery needs to be developing our intuition, using our imagination, and displaying our emotional sensitivity (without prying too much) in order to gain the right kinds of insight that lead to making a more valuable difference.
Immersion is the next step in the empathy framework. Instead of simply introducing yourself to the user and his or her world, this step involved directly experiencing the lives, contexts, activities, and environments of the people you’re seeking to better understand. The objective of this stage of empathetic research is to uncover intangible needs and feelings that indicate what should ideally change in the product we’re focusing on.
Our aim is to learn about who people really are while uncovering their needs. This is when we witness emotional responses, users’ body language, and the contexts and environments that surround them. This is true fieldwork: going to places where users live to conduct research and plant the seeds of connection (our next step).
Creating empathy with our users requires more than listening to them and imitating their lives. By interpreting the world through the lens of their values, history, religion, and culture, we can begin to design for them with them in mind. This is essential to making a connection.
You want to be curious and sincere here. You want to have feelings and ideas that resonate with your users. To do that, it’s often helpful to recall your own similar (or disparate) experiences in order to structure meaning as it makes sense to you, the researcher and designer. This step may occur naturally as you’re collecting data. If you understand and identify with users’ context and feelings, you’re more able to have empathic insights.
The final step in the empathy framework is detachment. This is when you step back into the role of a designer and begin to reflect on what you’ve experienced and learned in order to generate ideas. This is key to the design thinking process. It’s what we do with what we’ve learned from empathizing that helps us generate the most useful designs and ideas.
Conducting thorough and well-planned research allows us to have empathy. By utilizing objectivity and thoughtful interpretation, we can synthesize that research and arrive at interesting and valuable insights. Finding the sweet spot in our perspective (between pure empathy and objectivity) allows us to not just create products that solve a problem but to understand why we’ve arrived at those solutions. Knowing more about what we’re really solving for is just as important as how we’re solving for it.
Interested in learning more about empathy in the design process? Check out the Design Thinking Handbook over at designbetter.co. It’s full of information and resources to help you implement the design thinking process into your product design, no matter the size or maturity of your company.