If you search for the phrase “What skills do designers need?” you’ll find the usual list of design tools, processes, and project management techniques. But a crucial skill is often omitted, despite the fact that it’s almost impossible to create compelling, user-focused products without it. That skill is creative empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand how others experience the world and to imagine how they might be feeling. While it may seem an unlikely element of software development and product design, most leaders now value the critical role empathy plays in everything from running a successful business to practicing medicine.
Empathy is like a muscle: It can be developed. And designers who work on developing that muscle are better able to understand the people they are designing for.
Why Human-centric Design Calls for Empathy
Design strategist Teresa Brazen, an executive coach for Fortune 500 companies such as Cigna, believes all creative endeavors must start with empathy. As a designer, she says, you “make things for people. Those people aren’t you.”
Indeed, many startups fail because they don’t have product/market fit. To design products that solve people’s problems and add value to their lives, designers need to know how people make decisions. While it’s easy to believe that decision-making is completely rational, research shows that decisions originate largely in the subconscious. The challenge is that subconscious experience is “determined by tacit knowledge or latent needs and is often difficult to express in words.”
To help people surface their subconscious thoughts, empathy must be applied throughout the design process.
Practical Creative Empathy Techniques
My book, The Creative Empathy Field Guide, outlines techniques for applying empathy to creative projects. I’ve mapped some of these techniques to the Double Diamond innovation framework, which was created by the Design Council, the UK government’s design advisory body. While you may choose any design process, I’ve chosen the Double Diamond because it is used by millions of designers around the world.
Double Diamond Step 1: Discover
At the start of the design process, use these creative empathy techniques to understand people’s objectives, obstacles, and deepest motivations.
Empathy interviews rely on open-ended questions that elicit stories about people’s experiences and can help you get to the heart of what other people need and want to achieve. These tips will help you conduct successful interviews by building rapport with your interview subjects, making them more comfortable in sharing their thoughts:
- Make the interview subject feel heard by taking notes, smiling, making eye contact, nodding, and acknowledging their remarks by saying “I see” or repeating what they’ve just said.
- Be mindful of what message your body language might be sending. For instance, leaning backward often signals that you dislike what the other person is saying; lean toward the person attentively.
- Speak slowly, which can have a calming effect and also signals to the interview subject that you have time to listen to everything they have to say.
- Phrase questions to elicit storytelling; for example, you might begin with “Tell me about a time when …”
- Listen without judgment, noticing when you are looking for the other person to offer answers that confirm or negate your preconceived notions.
One crucial note: Incorporating empathy into interviews is different from reacting with empathy. For example, if someone complains that a product feature is hard to use, it may be tempting to say, “That sounds awful” or “How annoying!” Instead, use the opportunity to echo the person’s frustrations and ask for more information.
Observing people provides qualitative contextual clues as to how they might use a product. Observation can help you understand where roadblocks may occur when a product is introduced in a certain environment.
Recently, I spoke with Hayley Ward, Director of User Research and Insight at Deliveroo, a food-delivery service that operates in several countries. Not long ago, she participated in a “become your customer” exercise by working shifts picking up food from restaurants, rain or shine, and delivering it to customers’ doorsteps. “As a rider (delivery person), I was more focused on getting people’s orders right than on traffic or rain,” she said. “The passion I felt surprised me, and our riders feel that passion every day.” In a LinkedIn post, she added, “You can read all the decks you want, but nothing beats learning like getting out there yourself.”
While in-person interviews and field observations are ideal, they’re not always possible because of budget limitations or distance. Fortunately, tools such as Jitsi Meet allow people to share their screens and talk through tasks, and the past few years have normalized the use of remote techniques for collaboration and co-creation.
Diary studies are a good alternative to field studies because they encourage people to track their experiences using a product in real time (as opposed to completing surveys after the fact), giving you more accurate and detailed information. One article takes this a step further, suggesting that reading these diaries in the writer’s own handwriting can be remarkably effective.
Double Diamond Step 2: Define
In this phase, synthesize the results of your interviews and field observations (or diary studies) to fully understand the thoughts, experiences, motivations, rituals, and preferences of the people who will be using your products. Then, commit to keeping your intended users at the forefront of decision-making throughout the design process.
Most designers are familiar with personas: archetypes that illustrate typical users based on qualitative and quantitative research findings. Personas often focus on the desired customer’s traits, such as gender, age, occupation, and income.
However, I recommend creating characters instead. Characters serve the same purpose but go deeper, focusing on internal motivators, such as objectives, obstacles, and opportunities, to help develop empathy. You might even try freewriting as one of your characters.
My Character Map Canvas allows you to visualize a character’s basic traits, such as age and occupation, but it also includes empathy-eliciting information like obstacles and motivation. I use this independently, but it is best used in workshops. Mural and Miro are especially good tools for working with the Character Map Canvas, as they allow workshop participants to fill in the board with digital sticky notes.
Experience Flow Mapping
Once you have characters, you need to bring them to life. Telling stories about them is a good way to do this, since storytelling helps promote empathy. An experience flow is a journey map that tells the story of a person’s experience before they encounter your product. It shows how they try to achieve an objective and details the various obstacles they face along the way.
The next best thing to being in someone’s actual situation is to simulate it. At the health technology company Philips, I worked on the Grooming app, which gives advice on shaving and styling facial hair. Research showed that our customers got their facial hair advice from barbers, so we invited a barber to give shaves to the team members and offer grooming counsel. Experiencing the ritual helped us contextualize our work. The app won a design award and became one of the company’s most popular downloads.
Sensitizers are artifacts such as photos, notebooks, or ephemera like menus and ticket stubs that help designers or other stakeholders feel as though they have had direct contact with your characters. At Philips, one of my assignments involved building a self-help app for people with depression. At our weekly standup, a researcher would read one quote from their interviews with the product’s target audience. In addition to setting an overall compassionate tone, this empathy ritual allowed our team to connect with the experiences of the people who would be using the app.
Double Diamond Step 3: Develop
In this part of the process, transition from understanding the problem to creating a solution. Using a creative empathy framework as you explore, test, and refine concepts will help you more fully understand and communicate to other designers, as well as to stakeholders, how people will experience your designs.
While an experience flow maps a person’s journey without your product, a journey map allows you to visualize their experience with it by breaking down the steps they take—as well as the feelings they express—while interacting with your product. Following the vantage point of a single character, a journey map identifies their ultimate goal (registering for online classes, for instance) and the steps they take to achieve it. It also plots the character’s emotions and reactions to your product (taken from interviews and field studies) and allows you to see their successes and frustrations—their literal ups and downs.
It can be helpful to create a journey map that documents your own experience with the product. Make careful notes about where you encounter frustration and where you feel delight. This can help you understand the range and depth of the emotions the product elicits, and can shed light on where to focus efforts for improvement.
Prototyping marks an inflection point because it’s often when stakeholders first see the product in action. Be careful: It’s easy to forget people and focus too much on pixels when creating a prototype.
To ensure that empathy leads the way, remind your team to keep client goals and user needs at the forefront. Remain open to negative feedback; the faster you fail, the faster you can pivot and iterate until your product lands.
One concrete way to infuse creative empathy into your prototyping is to populate the product with real people’s photos, files, and contact lists (with their consent). This way, the prototype functions as closely as possible to the eventual real-world version.
Putting empathy at the forefront of your usability testing makes you more likely to arrive at product/market fit. Some experts recommend running multiple tests on digital products but including only five people per testing panel. No matter how many testers you recruit, make sure they represent the types of individuals you expect to use your product.
Observing the testing firsthand also helps develop empathy. You’re less likely to dismiss testers’ criticism if you’ve heard them clearly articulate their pain points.
There are many tools for UX testing, especially in today’s era of remote work. In moderated studies, you can use video conferencing tools to observe people while they interact with your product. In unmoderated studies—when I’m not present with the testers—I import Figma prototypes of my digital products into Maze, a rapid-testing platform where I can create and share test tasks.
You can also implement a rolling research system, a lean process that allows you to receive feedback quickly from, for instance, a beta community. When you do rolling research, you’re hearing directly from people (as opposed to reviewing diary studies) on a regular basis, making it an effective way to both gather data and co-create with real people.
Double Diamond Step 4: Deliver
In the last phase of the process, turn your final concept into a real product that you can test with your design team and customers. Then, use their feedback to identify UX flaws and make improvements.
As you’re refining your product, try interaction improv from Stephen P. Anderson’s book Seductive Interaction Design. This technique calls for a person to role-play a product and only say what the product would say. For example, if there’s a button labeled “Add to cart,” those are the only words the actor may use. The idea is to reframe human-product interactions by acting them out as human-human conversations. It can also surface hidden communication gaps and make you aware of microcopy the product may be missing.
The verb “dogfooding,” popular in the tech world, refers to the practice of trying products yourself and using them the way a customer would. At Philips, one of our creative directors and his team hosted a weekly lunch prepared using only Philips kitchen appliances such as blenders, soup makers, and air fryers. The ritual gave the designers the chance to experience the products firsthand so they could work out the kinks.
Hiring Your Customer
The snowboarding and outdoor apparel company Burton involves customers in its design process in multiple ways. Through its Performer Program, it offers discounts to snowboarders and other outdoor professionals in exchange for product feedback. It also has the Burton Team, a group of professional snowboarders who take Burton boards and gear around the world. The company then hosts Rider Roundtables: The team gathers with Burton’s co-founders and its product development teams, and, together, they test new products, play with prototypes, and discuss the brand’s direction.
Telemetry and Analytics
The data your prototype provides can yield valuable insights that offer additional entry points for empathy. In reviewing web analytics or app telemetry—the user data gathered by apps—you can uncover possible pain points or areas of your product you didn’t know were especially popular. If, for instance, you learn that people tend to use your app by turning their screens horizontally, you might place yourself in their shoes and imagine what situation may have caused them to have to rotate their screen. Using data to inform the design process and create the best user experiences is a whole world unto itself, summarized beautifully here.
Apply Empathy to Any Process
One of the greatest features of creative empathy is that it is process-agnostic; techniques for adding empathy to your work can be used no matter what design process you follow or how you specialize.
We’re all born with the capacity to experience empathy. Whatever your discipline, you can begin developing your ability to empathize by cultivating a robust emotional vocabulary to articulate feelings with precision. You can also become a more empathetic designer by trying to understand and immerse yourself in other people’s problems, feelings, and experiences.
Learning creative empathy techniques and applying them at every step of a design process can help you pinpoint what people truly want and need—and enable you to design products that improve their lives.