Tips to Build Empathy & Inspiration


At its core, design thinking is human centered thinking. This means that the customer (or user) is king, so to speak, and should be at the heart of every solution you design.

While it’s important to begin by framing the challenge, the next step of design thinking - building empathy and inspiration - is arguably the most essential part of the process. If the main objective of design thinking is to deliver customer-centric solutions, you simply cannot underestimate the power of empathy. In his article A Challenge to Leaders: A Day of Empathy, IDEO CEO and President, Tim Brown, explains that empathy is more than sympathy. Empathy is experiencing the life of the user:  identifying who you are designing for, deciphering their needs, desires, and parameters, and putting yourself in their shoes.

A recent piece from Harvard Business Review demonstrates how a little empathy can go a long way. In an attempt to transform health delivery, Rotterdam Eye Hospital implemented a design thinking program to help tackle the challenge. Through the process of getting to know their patients and better understanding their fears, pain points, and desires, hospital administrators have been able to improve patient-caregiver conversations and significantly increase their patient satisfaction score. Doctors are trained to observe and identify the type of patient they are interacting with, and how to move forward in presenting information to disseminate fear and instill trust

So, how does one go about building empathy? Here are some practical tips, adapted from our friends at ExperiencePoint®, to help inspire your design process:

1. Engage 

Talk to people. Ask questions. In order to better understand the user, you have to connect with them. Conduct interviews and ask people to tell you their story. What ideas do they have in mind? Do they have a vision? Do they have specific needs? Can these needs be generalized to other users?

2. Observe

Watch what people do. An observation in the context of design thinking is a fact without interpretation. Observing and collecting facts without immediately judging those facts is really difficult, but it’s critical to developing useful insights. This your chance to get out in the field and take notes on what you see. What are people doing? Why are they doing it? How are they using the product or service? The best way to gather intel for inspiration is to attack what you see with questions and to keep an open mind.

3. Immerse

Become the user. You have already observed other users, so now it’s time to literally put yourself in their shoes. If you want to know what deeply motivates people and have a keen awareness of what it feels like to live their life, try meeting them where they live, work, and play, and immersing yourself in their context. Simply shadowing an employee, colleague, or someone who’s work you haven’t experienced, can reveal new insights and unexpected opportunities. Pull from first-hand experience and ask yourself some questions. What works/doesn’t work for you? How do you feel? What would you do differently?

4. Reflect 

Identify key insights. Don’t forget to pause and reflect about what you learned from the previous activities. Taking the time to reflect unlocks insights that will help inform your solution design going forward. Here are some of our favorite reflection prompts:

  • What do people care about most?

  • What are their greatest challenges?

  • What are their pain points?

  • What drives their behavior?

Interested in learning more? Register for our December 2nd Design Thinking Crash Course to dive deeper into empathy and get hands-on training in design thinking. Experience the award-winning ExperienceInnovation simulation co-created by our partners at ExperiencePoint® and IDEO, ignite inspiration, and gain creative confidence!

Shannon DeuscherComment