Empathy for user centeredness – Part 1


Within a global modern corporate world, design-driven techniques, diverse multi-cultural and multidisciplinary teamwork as well as the term “user-centeredness” are gaining relevance and becoming more vital. Empathy and ideation have suddenly become most usable currency and buzzword where every creative and innovative employees to executives use these terms while mentioning design thinking. Every design thinking consultants and practitioners describe empathy as a crucial impact factor in Design Thinking.


Culture anthropologists and social scientists all agree that empathic insights are a form of extremely important knowledge that stems from concrete interaction with other people henceforth this knowledge is therefore not the result of a solely analytical process.

Henceforth I often recommend organizations to execute few exercises to trigger design thinking workshop participant mindset towards more emotional and cognitive dimensions rather than purely coming from analytical mindset (specially my old friends – bankers!!!!)


OK, Now its important to understand that three types of knowledge that characterise user needs namely knowledge about user needs, knowledge about product language and technical knowledge to empathise with your customers as users  / customer are not often sure what exactly they are looking for and what is the real problem statement.


Fair enough, now lets try to understand what empathy in the context of Design Thinking and what organizations should actually interpret it.


Philosopher Jesse Prinz rightly defined – Empathy is a thick concept, and it connotes praise. But an endorsement of empathy requires more than a warm fuzzy feeling.

Can’t agree more with Jesse as often organizations and design thinking consultants define empathy in context of design thinking as warm feeling. Make no mistake, its more than just showing sympathy to your customer or user.

Henceforth it’s not about how I would feel in the certain situation of the other. It is the attempt to reconstruct the specific perspective of the other and how she perceives the situation.

However often companies lack concrete techniques that can help facilitate enhancement of empathy and empathic knowledge of the daily work in companies.  Often manager’s comment after design thinking workshops about they knew problem and solution prior to workshop and wasted time and resources on workshop. The root cause lies in interpreting empathy, using it as an effective tool in Empathy-Define-Ideate-prototype and test process.

On the contrary, the Design Thinking process is seen as the attempt of utilizing empathy methods from the design domain in order to generate empathic perspective taking (a) among team-members and (b) toward the user.

In both cases we are focusing on defining the perspectives of user or client and collective wisdom of design thinking team and failing to understand persona’s perceived scenario in situational context.

The only aim of whole Design Thinking process should be to guide the non-designer, who is supposed to work on creativity-related topics in teams iteratively, from a vague understanding of a problem to an appropriate solution however we misinterpret the first stage itself of design thinking – EMPATHY and fail to use design thinking effectively in solving wicked challenges.


We all know that Design Thinking relies on five iterative working modes: “Empathize” is about exploring the nature of the problem and understanding the users and their needs. The findings of this phase are then categorized in a “Define” step, which synthesizes the main findings and acts as a “persona” (an ideal user) to validate decisions later in the process. The first two modes helps in understanding and defining problem or what we commonly call the “problem domain” and the remaining three modes are “Ideate”, “Prototype” and “Test” we categorize them under “Solution domain”.

These three modes deal with generating ideas that are expressed in prototypes, in order to test them with users, who are close to the persona.


Design thinking helps companies like Procter and Gamble, Cisco, Nike and others to not just to design products for customers but to design experiences for people. Below link is a genuine example of how effectively empathy helped an experienced engineer to redesign an life changing experience for children.


Lets continue further discussion on Empathy in next blog post for different forms of empathy.



Engineer by training; Business value advocate by choice. User, Coach, Trainer and active promoter of Business Model Innovation and Design Thinking. (after all its moral obligation when you learn from the best - Stanford Uni) Pivoted from merger and acquisition to digital transformation to defining innovation strategies to building startup to lean and agile delivery. Always inquisitive by nature and creative thinker in action believe in continuing life long learning journey.

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