Empathy is the foundation of the whole Design Thinking process. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes enhances our ability to receive and process information, which helps us understand how other people experience the world.
As a product designer, I know that empathy helps me to recognise the difficulties that people face, alongside their needs and desires, and that I can then use that knowledge to design the best solution for their challenges.
Being a product designer is exciting. I get to solve important problems and make people’s lives easier but, unfortunately, sometimes I get distracted – and so do most of us.
How many times do we find ourselves distracted in a project, and losing perspective on why and who we’re designing for? We all know that even the most successful projects have their high and low moments. How can we improve focus and create space for designers to challenge themselves and come up with their best work?
Why do we get Distracted?
I felt uncomfortable with my lack of empathy in some situations and decided to look into what’s blocking me and how I could solve it. Here are some common reasons I uncovered:
1.Solving a Different Problem
Are we solving the right problem? As a project progresses, it is not unusual for team or client problems to emerge: projects lack focus, expectations become difficult to manage, tasks duplicate… And it all creates inefficiency and frustration in the team, making the purpose of the work not as central as it should be.
2. The Test of Time
The longest project I’ve worked on lasted 12 months. That experience made me realise it’s not easy to make lengthy projects continuously interesting. Designer teams might get lost in the middle of endless files, tweaks and twists. That’s when they lose empathy and stop pushing the thinking.
3. Complex Problems
Designers are being asked to design for increasingly diverse users, cultures, and environments. These design challenges can be so wickedly complex that is difficult to develop or maintain empathy for the problem.
What can we do to Maintain Empathy?
There is no easy (or perhaps even “right”) solution for this problem, but I can share some of my conclusions and practical methods to help you through the tricky moments.
1. Engage With Your Team
When you’re… solving a different problem
In my experience, to build great products, we need to nurture a healthy and positive culture within the team. If you are not solving the right problem, and that’s getting you frustrated, stop and ask for help from your team. If we don’t empathise with our colleagues, how can we empathise with people we’re designing for?
Activity: Swap roles – Get someone from your team to swap roles or tasks with you. The goal here is to understand and even gain compassion for each other, which can lead to useful behavioral changes.
2. Keep the Momentum Going
When you’re… facing the test of time
Empathy serves to inspire decisions in the early stages of a design process: it helps designers to develop the reasoning and feelings behind human behaviours. We gain insights into people’s needs, wants, feelings and thoughts, and why they demonstrate such behaviors.
Activity: Empathy is not a stage: you should extend the empathy activities whenever needed during the process. Product teams that consistently keep customer needs in mind are able to maintain and evolve their products. For me, design process should be summarised as: Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test – and Empathise above all these stages.
3. Try it Yourself
When you’re… solving truly complex problems
If a problem is too complex, try gaining personal insights into others’ experiences. Resonating with the user may be easiest when you’ve got a personal example at hand. For example, I worked on a project to improve customer experience during a fraud journey. There was an immediate connection between me and our target customer, as I had also gone through the experience of being defrauded. I could remember how it felt when I experienced the same problem and how painful it was. Designers empathise more when they hear or see customers in action. So, why not invite a customer to sit and work with the team?
Activity: Extra chair – Invite customers to sit with the team and participate not only in the definition stage of the project. For example, invite them to participate in a ideation session with the team.
What About Your Empathic Thinking?
As humans we’ve evolved to have a powerful sense of empathy, but we get preoccupied with other things all too often. If we find ways to guarantee that empathy is always present, we will think deeper, care more, and create better products and services for humans everywhere.
Time and money are barriers to applying these activities but, as designers, we have the power to explore and educate others in new ways of thinking. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them – these are Albert Einstein’s words, not mine.
We can all agree Design Thinking without empathy doesn’t work. It’s a mindset that all designers should have and try to maintain and cultivate.
Have you faced similar problems in your work? I’d love to hear from you. If you’re working through a similar situation at the moment, feel free to try and include my suggested experiments to your design process and let me know how it goes. Let’s start a conversation.