Why Empathy is Fundamental to Design Thinking

Design Thinking may not be linear but there's a common kicking off point - empathy. Why is empathy so important and how do you implement it? READ ON

For most of us, when we think ‘design’ we usually think of how stylish a product is. We think of our desire to handle it, look at it and purchase it. But there is so much inside the process of design that takes us on this journey and makes the final product click. Strong design is far from just looking good - products and experiences have to perform, convert and fulfil their purpose amongst much more. There is so much that goes into making a product hit all the sweet spots that give it that wow factor and one way to make sure you’re acing the process is to follow the Design Thinking route. 

A common misconception is that when we feel drawn to a product, it’s the style that we get most of our satisfaction from. But this satisfaction is usually targeted through good user-friendliness; how quickly and enjoyable it is to gain the value that we are looking for. 

The first rule of strong design? 

It always ties style and substance together. One doesn’t exist without the other. 

So how do you ace this psychology component of design? That part that makes a user never want to put it down or leave the experience? You have to understand your user. 

And how do you do that? By empathizing with them. 

So let’s break this firs step in the Design Thinking process down.

What is Empathy? 

In a broad sense empathy is the ability to understand the world through the eyes of others. If you empathize you can work out how someone else moves in their environment intellectually, emotionally and reacts to situations based on their previous experiences and knowledge. 

Of course, we can never fully understand someone else, but we can research their environments, reactions, tendencies and use this information to place ourselves in their position. If done correctly, this information can be one of the strongest tools you have for creating a well-built product. Working out a user's perception of a product and predicting what they might be inclined towards is incredibly beneficial when creating any and every product. 

Empathy and sympathy are often confused but they do differ. While they both mean to understand the position of someone else, sympathy is more distant than empathy is. Sympathising is expressing feelings for someone's situation, whereas empathizing means to try and feel those emotions first hand. 

It’s SO important to empathize rather than sympathize so the motivation of your audience is clear and you can embody what your audience feels and therefore wants. 

Why Should you Empathise? 

While Design Thinking is famously not linear - beginning with empathy is beneficial for a multitude of reasons. 

Before we dive in let’s clarify the stages of Design Thinking: 

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

In the empathizing stage, your goal as the designer is to take an empathetic approach when understanding your audience. The process involves observing, engaging and empathizing with the people you are designing for to understand their motivations with the product. Doing this involves you immersing yourself in their headspace, and environment so you can get a personal view of what is needed. It’s necessary so when you create the product, you are building off of qualities that are essential rather than on assumptions that you might have. 

To put it simply, empathizing places you on the shop floor, deciding amid your client base rather than assuming in a boardroom and making decisions with little knowledge. Dependent on time constraints - you want to aim to gather as much information at this stage to start building the foundation of the product. 

How do you start Empathising? 

There are some great methods to execute this empathy stage - we have 5 that we apply when empathizing with our audience. There are four essential steps for designing with empathy: discovery,  immersion, connection, detachment.

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Beginner’s Mindset

We all have our assumptions - and while it can be good to be knowledgeable about topics, intentionally unlearning is usually the best route forward. Assumptions can be detrimental when creating something new. Not just because they can hinder creativity, but because they can create a block between you and your audience. Sometimes we need to go backwards to truly move forwards. 

The best way to empathize is to start with a clean slate. Why? 

Here’s an example: 

Let’s say there’s a designer who moonlights as a photographer. This designer decides to create a photography app. With the prior knowledge this designer has about photography, there is a good chance that they would implement the knowledge they have and overlook their assumptions of what is general knowledge. In this scenario, the designer will design based on their level of knowledge which could be too complex for those starting. This would lead to a product that wouldn’t have intuition at its core, which would overall be poorly designed. 

So the way to resolve it? Forget everything you know and adopt a beginner's mindset. 

That means:

  • No judging - Observing users with no judgment of their perceptions, issues, values or knowledge. 
  • Questioning everything - Even the parts you think you know. Always ask why - even if it feels excessive. 
  • Being truly curious - Put curiosity first in everything, even if it seems familiar or complex.
  • Finding patterns - Look for themes that come about amongst users. 

Once you adopt this mindset you will learn everything from the ground up, and on the way pick up bits that are fundamental to what you are trying to accomplish but would have overlooked as it would be considered “beginner’s knowledge”. 

Ask the 5 Whys

Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries developed the ‘5 Whys’ technique in the 1930s and it’s so good that Toyota still uses it to solve problems to this day.

This method is an iterative interrogation process that works incredibly well for getting to the heart of the user's problem. It is based on asking the question “Why is that?” five times to get to the root of the issue. Through the repetitiveness - the ‘5 whys’ seeks to understand the cause and effect of the user’s problem.  

Think of a 5-year-old child that won’t let a subject matter go. Whenever you get an answer, ask “Why is that?” continuously until you get to the core of the problem. You want to do this with users who have hands-on experience so there is more insight into the product. 

The ‘5 whys’ build off the cause and effect relationship. This process can uncover multiple underlying issues quickly and effectively. 

Conduct interviews with empathy

It’s a good idea to conduct interviews with people who have hands-on experience with what you are trying to build. When interviewing try and place yourselves in the shoes of your users. You want to REALLY know what drives them, what frustrates them, what their values are when it comes to the product.

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ct. Only by trying to feel what your users are feeling can you build this care and create a product that resonates. 

Try repeating these questions to yourself a few times while interviewing: 

  • What can this user tell me that I can resolve? 
  • How can I bring this value to the market that doesn’t already exist?

Build user relationships with analogies

We like to simplify things so we can draw patterns between what we are creating and other products that are familiar to us. 

Ever heard that phrase by Einstein - “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself”? Well, we agree - sort of. Building empathy with your users is making sure that they are on the same page as you when you are discussing your intentions and drawing parallels between your product and other products they’re familiar with. 

Want to build something revolutionary? Get used to using analogies. It’ll help you understand what you are trying to achieve and it’ll also help you find the common denominators between what you are building, the issue at hand and your target audience. 

Analogies are great for giving you a new way of seeing. They have to be appropriate for the context but when they are they can revolutionize this phase of the design process. 

Using analogies can help you to grasp complex realities. For example, if you are working with a product to do with implementing something that has a high rejection rate you can liken the process to a very hard jigsaw puzzle. Explaining this process of elimination in a way that becomes simple and visual can be great for helping others to understand your viewpoint. It is also really great for creating distance between you and what you are working on. This separation from the realness of your product can spark some new ideas and give a fresh perspective. 

A handy tip for when you are using analogies: ALWAYS identify the most important aspect of a situation and play off that.

For example, if you are improving a supermarket experience - your focus might be on categorizing products, efficient checkouts, making decisions on products, etc. So when discussing this with users try finding other experiences that contain similar aspects. Doing so will help you gain a better understanding of your users' thought processes. Also, removing the conversation from the direct supermarket conversation will allow more room for out of the box thinking. 


Did you ever play “pretend” when you were younger? You know, where you envisioned yourself as an astronaut, chef, doctor, etc. Well, this process is super useful for the empathy phase. 

Hear us out. 

Although it might seem juvenile, acting out your user can place you in their shoes and give you solid insight into how your users might think and feel. 

How do you go about doing it? 

It’s simple really. You go to where your users would be using the product and act out a situation where the users would experience your product or design. 

Let’s use an example: 

Let's say a design team is interested in a swim-up bar at a hotel. Rather than brainstorming in a boardroom about what might be interesting for the users - the team would go to the hotel and role-play the scene, getting the first-hand experience of what they themselves would like to see if they were the user and testing its functionality. 

Not only does bodystorming this process makes it more memorable but it gives the team a chance to see the issues your users are facing first-hand. Bodystorming does require a dose of the imagination but this is what makes it so valuable and instills empathy when you are working. 

  • What, How, Why
  • Photo and Video User-based Studies
  • Personal journals
  • Camera studies and user permissions
  • Engaging with extreme users
  • Sharing Inspiring Stories

What comes after the empathize phase?

So there you have it - our ultimate guide to the first phase of Design Thinking - Empathy. It is so important to implement this step thoroughly when working on a new product. Go implement our 5 favourite steps for gaining the utmost empathy for your users and let us know how you get on!