The Cornerstone of the Philosophy, the Principles, the Process of Design Thinking is Empathy.
We conduct Design Thinking talks and programmes quite frequently. And during most of my sessions, for audiences as varied as Finance professionals, Sales managers, HR leaders, Engineers and Designers, someone from my participants always asks me: “but isn’t the idea of creating solutions based on User needs common sense? A no-brainer? A piece of wisdom from our grandfather’s time?”
And my answer is invariably and emphatically “YES!”
And yet, when we dive in to understand the and apply Design Thinking, I see participants struggle to do exactly that. Immerse themselves in the User/Stakeholder’s experience. Observe, Engage, Watch and Listen, for clues and signs that tell of habits and behaviours, needs and interests, fears and desires. The critical “why” behind decisions and actions, the “what” behind causes and motivations.
Everybody knows the need for Empathy. Everybody understands the significance and implications of User-Centred thinking, before designing and solutioning. Yet, very few can practice it.
Because years, maybe lifetimes of conditioning, experiences, frames of reference and biases come in the way of objectively looking at data and facts, to take in user experiences for what they are, and not judge and prematurely evaluate. The conflict between what we think “we know already” and the surprising realities of “what we find” when we observe are not easy to reconcile with. We are not listening beyond the noises in our heads, and missing important clues that can help us make sense of the world. What Tim Brown at IDEO calls “sense-making”.
And yet, there lies the only way ahead. The ONLY way to Customer Centricity, to meaningful solutions and products, to real innovation. To counter assumptions and biases, and understand, really understand what really matters. That’s why we start with Empathise, before we can even Define the problem to solve.
To be clear, this focus on Users neither rejects nor diminishes the knowledge and experience the participants bring to the table. Subject-matter expertise is not only a critical multiplier of Design Thinking, it is also essential to developing meaningful, collective insights or points of view (as further source of data).
However, there is no alternative to Empathy and generating insights through Empathy research. And it is the cornerstone of not just Design Thinking, but getting better in life. As David Kelley puts it “The main tenet of design thinking is Empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building Empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”
Empathy helps us understand other people, put ourselves in their shoes, and only when we are able to do that can we see things from different perspectives. And that is what we need to solve their problems, and improve our situations.
To achieve this understanding we need to build a new kind of relationship with those for whom we design. We need to move from a vertical relationship where “users” are a mere source of information that designers mine for our various purposes, to a more horizontal relationship where users are considered experts of their own experience and are regarded with the same respect and credibility as any other consultant in the design process.
Establishing this type of horizontal relationship reduces the perceived distance between “users” and designers, blurs the boundaries between “us” and “them,” and helps us in recognizing our commonalities as human beings, which is a first step in achieving empathy for others.
The next step for crossing the bridge to the users’ reality is to access and explore their experience through different methods like observations, interviews, prototype testing, sessions of co-creation, among others. Each of these techniques allow for different kinds of interaction and levels of involvement with the users. For instance, when conducting an observation, the level of interaction tends to be minimal since the purpose of this method is to gain insights about the users’ behavior and experience in their natural setting (i.e. where they dwell, work, study, or play). On the contrary, when conducting a session of co-creation, the level of interaction is maximized since users and designers collaborate to improve and develop new products, services, or experiences.
These interactions expose the designers to the experiences and circumstances of the users and lead them to take their perspective on a particular situation, which is one of the mental processes that generate empathy for others.
An example of how these interactions can generate empathy is the dialogue between a young diabetes patient and a designer who is creating a new system to administer insulin. Imagine the patient describing her daily life: how she has to calculate the amount of insulin she needs to inject according to what she’s planning to have for lunch, how she has to prick her fingers several times a day to measure her blood sugar levels, and how she needs to alternate the places where she injects insulin to avoid the appearance of lumps under her skin.
Now imagine the designer trying to understand her situation and feel her discomfort: listening at how this condition impacts her daily routine, observing her actions and gestures when she demonstrates her “ritual” to inject insulin, mapping her experience at dinner time when she describes the steps she follows before and after eating, and noting the risks involved when she expresses her concern about going to bed and not waking up the next day.
Beyond the initial feelings of sympathy or concern that the designer may have developed for the diabetes patient in this interaction, what is important here is how he responds after crossing the mentioned bridge and after having a glimpse into the patient’s reality, that is, the meaningful actions he can undertake to address this patient’s needs and aspirations in order to improve her situation. This response mediated by empathy is what makes this skill so valuable to design.
In sum, empathy allows us to access and explore other people’s lives, to feel and understand their circumstances, and, in the case of design, to respond to their situation by creating solutions—products, services or experiences—that resonate with their realities. Ultimately, empathy is instrumental in achieving our goal as designers: to improve people’s quality of life.
Here’s a great video on Empathy. Empathy is something that can make us better as human beings. And also create better cities where we listen to citizens, schools where we listen to students, relationships where we listen to partners. Empathy is our sign of success as a race, and our hope for the future.
At The Painted sky and UBQT Design Solutions, we help clients use Design Thinking in finding the best way forward past problems and challenges. Be it in trainings that merge business experiences with robust processes or in projects that help create better experiences for stakeholders across the board.
Get in touch, for more.