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The Importance of Empathy in Design

One of the most important aspects of any great design is the empathetic understanding of and connection to the user. If a design is ‘selfish’, as in when a product designed with the designer in mind and not the user, it will ultimately fail because it does not provide a solution to a very real and present problem. 

Empathy vs Sympathy

In my experience, it is common to find that people confuse empathy with sympathy. Although the two are close in their meaning there are some vital differences. Let me explain.

This is Linn. Linn has just found out her relationship is over after 5 years. She is distraught and in shock. Imagine you are her friend and Linn had just told you what had happened.

Now, an empathetic response to this situation would be to ‘feel’ with Linn, see through her eyes and put yourself in her shoes. You might say “I am so sorry, Linn, but I am happy you told me”. There is no judgement, there is no look on the bright side rhetoric, just open-armed empathy and understanding.

Alternatively, a sympathetic response would go something like “Oh Linn, never mind! There are plenty more fish in the sea” or “Chin up, Linn. He wasn’t good enough for you anyway!”. 

Even though both responses have the ultimate goal of feeling better, empathy shows a much deeper feeling and understanding of someone’s problems, making them feel like they are not alone, and listening rather than telling.

Sympathy conveys a sense of superiority and pity more than understanding and inevitably makes the people feel worse. 

Empathy in Design

Here is how the Interaction Design Foundation defines empathy;

“In a general sense, empathy is our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do.

Of course, none of us can fully experience things the way someone else does, but we can attempt to get as close as possible, and we do this by putting aside our own preconceived ideas and choosing to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others instead.”

In a design sense, empathy is a deep connection and understanding of the target user, their needs and their problems, with the aim of providing a tailor-made solution.

On top of this, it is about truly understanding their desires and forcing yourself to see the world from the user’s eyes. When empathy is used in the design process, it is often found that new ways of seeing a problem open up.   

Empathy in design thinking

As I am sure you know empathy is the first stage in the 5 stage process of design thinking, with the others being Define/Ideate/Prototype and Test.

Design thinking is a design approach led by the notion that design should be a non-linear process, it should challenge the norms and assumptions laid down in the past as well as provide innovation and solutions to real problems.

It is best used when you are designing for a problem that is ill-defined at the outset, or even completely unknown. Uncovering problems that are hidden is one design thinking’s great strengths. 

Empathy and design in the 21st century

Empathy is an important thread running through modern design processes. The world continues at a faster rate. Environments morph year on year, human behaviour is becoming more erratic.

Globalisation has given us a world much smaller than it used to be; all the while being a more complicated one. As the world changes so must designers, focusing on world problems in a human-centric way.

Why empathy is vital to a successful business

Design thinking is a process that values empathy and human-centric design. They go hand in hand in guiding designers to put aside their own assumptions so that they can gain insight into the user’s needs from the users perspective.

Yet what about other needs that affect whether or not a product is successful?

The success of a design can be measured from three parameters. Of course, one of them is human-centric. We refer to this as the desirability of the product.

The viability of a product measures success from a business standpoint and finally, feasibility measures success from a technological standpoint. A product will not simply make a profit on its own (viable) nor is it good enough that a product can be made (feasible).

If a product is not desirable to the targeted user then there is no hope for it. Succeeding in anything less than all of these areas will result in a failure of the product eventually.

The only way we can design a desirable product is to truly understand and feel people’s needs with a human-centred, empathetic approach. 

In business, the empathetic design is logical. It is of the highest importance for a business to invent solutions to actual problems (even hidden problems). The last thing a business wants is to invest heavily in a product design that solves a problem that doesn’t exist. 

Design failure

One of the examples of this was ‘Facebook Home’. In 2013, Facebook attempted to expand its iron grip in the social media scene with the design of an app that turned the user’s phone home screen into a fully-fledged Facebook news feed. It is safe to say that it did not land well. The UI was clunky and illogical, there were no customisation options and worst of all, it didn’t solve a problem. In fact, it created more problems for the user. Less than a year after its initial release, Facebook Home was withdrawn from sale.

Design success

The design of Spotify was a seminal moment in my life and a great example of human-centred design and problem-solving. In fact, one can argue that Spotify’s design solved a problem of how we consumed music before most of us realised it was even there. A great marker that design thinking was utilised in its creation. Previously, songs and albums were bought individually for download or physically at a record store. The mediums on which we owned music were many and cost high due to physical manufacturing and shipping costs. Spotify solved all those problems by streaming all the music you could ever need and more, straight to your device, from the cloud for one reasonable monthly fee. No storage issues, manufacturing costs and all in one place. A heavenly combination of accessibility and value. 

The round-up

Empathy is important in design because, as designers, it gives us fresh eyes to view a problem. It allows us to truly understand the needs of the user without our own hangups affecting our judgement. It allows us to design solutions that are viable, feasible and desirable that ultimately becomes a success because they solve a very real problem, whether we know it is a problem yet or not. 

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