Why Is Empathy Important in Design Thinking?

7 minutes read • February 13, 2022 • Design Thinking

If you want your products to work effectively, you need to begin the design process with empathy. Empathy is one of the most crucial elements in both design thinking and human-centered design. But what is empathy, and why is it so vital? Let’s explore what empathy means and how it can assist in creating solutions that work for people. We’ll also examine how a lack of empathy can lead to product failure, which is something we all want to prevent. By the end of this document, you’ll understand the empowering idea that everyone can enhance their empathy and use it to design truly human-centric solutions.

Empathy is our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. Of course, none of us can fully experience things the way someone else does, but we can try to get as close as possible. We achieve this empathic state by setting aside our own preconceived ideas about the world and choosing to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others instead.

According to IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit, empathy is a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for.” In other words, empathy requires us to learn about the difficulties people face and uncover their latent needs and desires to explain their behaviors. To truly empathize with them, we need to gain an understanding of their environment, as well as their roles and interactions within it.

When we empathize with people, we can transform even the most stressful situations into delightful ones for end-users. In this video, you will see examples of well-designed and poorly-designed airports and the power of empathy in design.

Empathy Helps You:

  • Appreciate people’s emotional and physical needs.
  • Gain insight into the way people see, understand, and interact with the world around them.
  • Realize how lives are impacted within the contexts being investigated.
  • Find out what people mean rather than just what they say-empathic research is inherently subjective and is concerned with motivations and thoughts, rather than facts.

Don’t Confuse Empathy With Sympathy

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, a mistake you definitely don’t want to make in the world of design thinking! Sympathy is about showing concern for the well-being of another, but does not necessarily require you to experience what others do. Now that you understand what empathy means, you can see there is a clear difference!

Sympathy often involves a sense of detachment and superiority. When we sympathize, we tend to project feelings of pity and sorrow onto another person. These feelings have the potential to rub people the wrong way and prove useless in the design thinking process. In design thinking, your goal is to understand the people for whom you design, not react to their current predicament in an emotional way. The Empathize stage of design thinking requires you to visit your users in their natural environments, learn about how they behave, and conduct interviews with them — all so you can create a solution which helps solve a problem they face. You need empathy to achieve that, not sympathy.

In this RSA Short, research professor and author Brené Brown explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. She reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own vulnerabilities.


Empathize is the first of five stages in the design thinking process. The other four are Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

“Empathize” is actually the first stage of the design thinking process, and it’s easy to understand why. Your goal, as a designer, is to gain an empathic understanding of the people you design for! You should have a burning desire to observe, engage, and empathize with the people you design for to understand their experiences and motivations. What’s more, you’ll need to immerse yourself in their physical environment if you want to have any chance at gaining a deeper personal understanding of the issues, needs, and challenges involved in their day-to-day lives.

When you immerse yourself in the environment and context of the people you design for, you can often get a completely different perspective than what you might expect. What might seem like good weather for you (say, warm and sunny) may well be a not-so-nice day for someone else. HCI expert Alan Dix explains this.

Empathy is simply crucial to a human-centered design process such as design thinking, as it helps you set aside your own assumptions about the world to gain insight into your users and their needs instead. The Empathize stage of the design thinking process is a time for you to collect as many experiences, insights, and observations as possible, so you can build a solid foundation for the rest of your design project.

We cannot stress enough how important it is for you as a designer to develop the best possible understanding of your users, their needs, and the problems that your product or service is trying to solve! You and your team can gain huge insight via the practical Empathize methods below, and, if time and money allow for it, it may also be worth getting some experts on board to help you fully understand the people you want to design for.

What’s good to note is this empathic phase of design thinking is named differently depending on which version of the methodology you follow. Different schools and companies which use design thinking have called empathic research “the Empathize stage” (as we do), “the understand phase,” “the hear phase,” and simply “looking,” as well as a number of other terms. Regardless of which phrase you’re familiar with, the core is essentially the same — empathy is deeply human-centric and is essential at the start of any design process.

In this short film, the director Jason Headley explains his perspective on relationship communication using metaphors and hyperbole to drive the point home.

Empathy is Crucial to Business Success

Empathy can also be deemed an essential component of business solutions when you look at things from the perspective of profit. You may create solutions that completely miss the mark if you develop solutions in isolation. You need to gain essential insights about your users if you want to remain relevant in the market.

People ignore design that ignores people.

—Frank Chimero, author of The Shape of Design

Many leaders within the fields of innovation, learning, and entrepreneurship have pointed to three key parameters which define a successful product or service: desirability, feasibility, and viability.

It’s not enough that the technology exists (i.e., feasibility is present) and that profits or business benefits may be derived (i.e., it is viable). Users need to feel a sense of desirability towards a solution. We can only design a desirable product or service when people’s needs, experiences, wants, and preferences are properly understood.

One clear example of this is the iPod. Many MP3 players came and went throughout the late 1990s and didn’t create much of an impact. Then, along came the iPod in 2001. It not only provided a technological solution but also delivered a completely desirable and viable experience. This meant Apple took the lead in the market and continued to hold it for many years to come, generating huge profits along the way.

Empathy Helps You Read Between the Lines

Empathy is also the only way to thoroughly understand what people mean, rather than just absorb what they say. People do not necessarily always cover the details when they share stories and other information. They may withhold information out of fear, distrust, or another inhibiting factor — be it internal or based on those with whom they engage — and they may express themselves in a less than articulate way. As a designer, you need to:

  • Make sense of what is not being said or what is being hinted at beneath the external expressions and words.
  • Develop intuition, imagination, emotional sensitivity, and creativity so you can dig deeper into people’s experiences.
  • Extract the right kinds of insight to ensure you make a meaningful difference.

Empathy is the difference between what your users say at face value and what IDEO Executive Design Director Jane Fulton Suri describes as “thoughtless acts.” Thoughtless acts are small, subtle acts people exhibit that reveals how their behaviors are shaped by their environment. Empathy can help us find opportunities for new insights and new solutions to help people with these suboptimal, unconscious acts.

Become Conscious of Your Empathy

If you’re worried you’re unable to master being fully empathic toward the people you design for, there’s good news! Neuroscientists have recently discovered empathy is hard-wired into the way humans are made and is, therefore, an integral part of our physiology. Humans who observe others show brain activity that resembles someone actually engaged in the activity being observed. In other words, empathy is an innate quality we can all make use of to design for the people around us!

Empathy is a skill that needs to be constantly practiced and honed. Not everyone can grasp empathy easily. For some people, it is harder than it is for others. Neurodiversity, which is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, can affect how readily empathy is learned and understood. This is regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.

So, practice, practice, practice upping your empathy skills game. Empathy isn’t just for users; it’s also for stakeholders and teammates.

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