Empathy in Design Thinking – Putting Things in Perspective

empathy in design thinking

“In the end, design is all about empathy. It leads to creativity, inspiration and

breakthrough solutions to problems”

– Leon Segal


Empathy in design thinking. Three pretty heavy words there. We are not writing a blog post on psychoanalysis today.

With our UI/UX design team always so deep into thought, seeking leeway through their drawing boards, we wondered if other design agency teams do the same as well?

The word ‘empathy’ comes from Greek literature, where pathos means ‘feeling’. But how do feelings fit into UX design? Can’t we just design what we want as designers and expect the audience or user to understand what we want them to?

Sadly, that doesn’t work. People are like onions (there! I said it). They have layers and senses. Unravelling each layer exposes their state of mind. Hit the right spot with your design, and you can influence their decisions. Identify the end user’s needs, challenges, reactions, and apply those findings in designs. These then get built as product development methods – lean startup, waterfall, agile, scrum, etc.

Let’s deep dive further…

What is empathy in design thinking?

Empathy is the human ability to perceive the world through someone else’s eyes. Seeing then turns to feelings and experiences. Nobody can fully experience someone else’s circumstances. But we as designers can certainly try.

Designers get into the shoes of their end-users and try to see the product from the front. Desires, talents and behaviours are identified which help UI designers to create a base. Empathy in design thinking helps gain an appreciation of the user’s physical and emotional needs.

These needs are not related to why the user does not sleep well at night or how frustrated he is with Mumbai’s traffic. The needs are related to the contexts being investigated. For e.g. one need could be why the user prefers using a FitBit rather than simply using a health app?

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Why practise empathy in the first place?

‘Empathy in design’ went viral a few years ago. Every UX designer was either listening to podcasts about design thinking or scurrying through blog posts such as this.

Then came Don Norman and published this article on why he didn’t believe Empathic Design.


Don Norman was the one who introduced ‘empathy in design’ in the first place. In this article, he pointed out an instance where designers in India don’t understand rural Indian users any more than designers in the US.

Let’s listen to Don Norman speak about 21st Century Design. The video is from NNGroup’s YouTube channel.

He felt that focusing on every individual’s personality is futile if the product caters to a large number of users anyway. But that doesn’t stop us from at least trying out designs based on the two contexts of empathy – Societal and Product.

Societal Context

Designing a product for social transformation requires design knowledge and community knowledge. Designers here act as catalysts and not as solution providers.

Our designers at Kodework wear multiple hats. They are guides, mentors and facilitators. The approach they follow is top-down for design knowledge and bottom-up for community. Of course, this differs from community to community.

Product Context

Our designers here follow a Human Centred Design approach. Real issues are found among users where the product can solve them. Empathy in design helps to address issues through an empathetic mindset.

Likes, dislikes, behaviours, moods, etc. can all help curate the product that caters to the user’s needs.


“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

– John Steinbeck.


Examples of Empathy in Design

A positive example of empathy in design can be the Stanford experiment. Here a group of postgraduate students from Stanford University were asked to develop a new type of incubator (not the one for businesses, but the one for babies).

This incubator was to be operational in developing countries. The students directly contacted mothers in remote villages and understood that they couldn’t reach hospitals to save their babies. This empathic insight made the students to instead develop a warming device than a specific incubator.

The Embrace Warmer was born. It saved thousands of lives. It is portable and reduces production costs. An infant is wrapped around the warmer and held by the mother. It serves the same benefits of an incubator. Through empathy the students were able to take an incubator from hospitals to literally the arms of mothers.

Jane Chen, Founder of Embrace, delves deeper into what made her and her Stanford class come up with a portable incubator solution.

Likewise, a failed example of empathy in design is Google Glass. Launched in 2013 by Google, the wearable head-mounted computer failed as a product due to lack of empathy.

It allowed users to send messages, take photos and check directions or weather. It was voice-activated, which meant a user had to direct commands out loud. This made it socially awkward to use the device. The camera mounted over the device raised privacy concerns.

Google Glass explained,


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