Empathic Design – Trend or Necessity?

A typical day for a designer involves being locked in a room or secluded to a cubicle for hours on end hoping that a miracle happens. Sometimes the days go by and everything they create is crap, and by the end of it, patience is thin and no amount of caffeine can guarantee great results. Don’t believe this process actually happens? Well you should, because I’m speaking from experience. Fact is, after all of that toil, designers never get to encounter or appreciate their project like a new or typical user would. This is important because users, specifically very targeted users, have distinct perspectives and needs. As products and services continue to become more granular, we need to understand how the end user will feel and interact with designed experiences.

“Designing for a user problem that you don’t deeply understand is really hard to do. You’re much more likely to successfully design for a user problem that you deeply understand. It also makes you more creative and more innovative when you do this kind of counterfactual thinking. It has a neurological effect that stimulates creativity.”
– Katy Mogal

As a part of the human-centered design movement, empathic design has been defined as a key method to produce solutions that address modern challenges. International design and consulting firm, IDEO, states that empathy is needed in order to gain a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for.” In its purest form, empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s emotions, goals, and motivations. Without this crucial element, designers would be creating within their own boxes, hopelessly ideating in circles and hoping something sticks. Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy requires the “listening” party to be able to truly feel and identify with those suffering. Sympathy often lacks this connection – when we sympathize we feel emotions for someone, when we empathize we feel emotions with someone. With this sense of togetherness and appreciation, we can work to build experiences that are inclusive and intuitive.

The Empathic Design Process

If you are familiar with the Design Thinking process, the empathic design process is very similar. Step one is to observe. During this step, there are several elements that should be determined: who should be observed, who should do the observing, and what behaviors/needs should be accounted for. To make the most out of this step, it is sometimes helpful to implement exercises that work to decrease bias, build acceptance, and foster collaboration. By putting aside differences and promoting a diverse perspective, designers (and other key stakeholders) are able to decide which factors should be the main focus for the project and how to support their end goal.

Step two is to capture data. Primary sources (otherwise known as real people), should be questioned in order to gain authentic insight. These individuals should be varied enough so that the team collects perspective from all types of users. For optimal results, I would recommend a break down of would-be “super users,” generalized users from your target audience, and a smattering of people who wouldn’t classify as a user but as an interested party who might interact with your product. The scale and ratio would, of course, depend on project and budget, but the diversified audience is what matters! Data from these subjects can be collected via online surveys, in-person interviews, or videos. Choose a method that works best for your project.

Step three is reflection and analysis. Study your findings closely and see where the gaps and opportunities lie. At this point, the team should be trying to empathize the most with their audience. Through this strong understanding, they should be able to easily identify what the largest issues are and what features must be included in the solution. If there are any grey areas, take the time to go back to discuss with your team or return to step two to capture additional details and clarity.

Step four is to brainstorm. Much like the design thinking process, all solutions – no matter how outlandish or “wrong” – should be taken into consideration and recorded for the group to vote on. In this stage, we want to throw out as many solutions as possible because they could be a catalyst for an amazing product.

The final step is to develop prototypes. Here, the team should bring the solutions discussed in step four to life. By giving those solutions tangible, fleshed-out forms we can see how the product might perform. Prototypes also allow the team to see if the solution is feasible for the business based off of resources. If it’s not attainable, don’t pursue it. If by the end of this process the team finds they haven’t discovered what they need to, return to step two. Define a new question, a new purpose. Simply changing the positioning a bit could help to reveal a crucial detail that was missing in the last iteration. When in doubt, record, retain, retrospect, and repeat!

Creating An Empathy Map

To help you on your way becoming an empathic designer, utilizing an empathy map can help organize the data you found from your step two interviews. This map is often broken down into six categories: Think & Feel, Hear, See, Say & Do, Pain, and Gain. Documenting data into these sextants allow you to see the pain points and understand a specific user’s perspective.

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
– Stephen Covey

This week, I performed an exercise where I mapped two users’ experience of the same business using an episode of Undercover Boss as my case study. For the exercise, I viewed Season 5, Episode 3 where Chairwoman Jane Grote Abell went incognito into Donatos, her family-run pizza franchise. During the episode, I documented Abell’s experience and contrasted it with the experience of one of her employee’s. It was fascinating to see where the similarities were. When it came down to it, Abell and her employee both had the same familial values and strove to put their best face forward in order to inspire others and bring the best products to customers. From a business standpoint, all leaders should develop their people so that the trickle-down of value and ethics permeates into every branch of the company. At the end of the day, shared passion, shared pain, and mutual understanding isn’t just a trend – it’s driving results.

Check out my Empathy Mapping exercise here!

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