Empathy in Design Thinking: Purpose & Importance

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Empathy is a core value of design thinking. It's also the first step in the design thinking process. In this lesson, we'll explore what it is and its purpose and importance. We'll also examine a key tool in design thinking, the empathy map.

Design Thinking

Shaina is designing a video game to teach historical concepts to students, and she's faced with some important questions. What will work best? What will keep the attention of students and also help them learn?

One way for Shaina to answer these questions is with design thinking, which involves planning with the end user in mind. Who will use this product? What will the users experience? What do they want in the product? These are questions that design thinking seeks to answer.

To help Shaina figure out what the students who will be using her software want and what they'll experience, let's take a look at the first step in the design thinking process: empathy.

Knowing End Users

If Shaina wants to design her game with the students in mind, she'll first have to understand those students. For this reason, empathy, or understanding and feeling what others feel, is the first step in the design thinking process.

As the starting point of the design process, empathy allows a designer to understand the people who will eventually use their product. This is an intensely important stage that includes understanding the way users do things and why. For example, if Shaina learns that most students are motivated to play when they earn points, she'll decide to include a point-earning system in her game. Without first understanding that her users are motivated by points she might not have included points, and therefore her game might not have been as popular.

Empathy can also allow a designer to understand the user's physical and emotional needs. For example, if some students are intimidated by loud noises or some students find it hard to push three buttons at once, Shaina can avoid putting those elements in her game.

Finally, empathy shows a designer how users think about the world and what is meaningful to users. Maybe the students who will play Shaina's game respond well to the relationships and stories of history, instead of just dates and battles. If that's what's meaningful to them, Shaina can focus on the stories of people, not just dates and battles, in her game.

All of these things lead to one simple fact: empathy allows designers to anticipate and meet the needs of eventual customers. It allows Shaina to know what her customers will want and need as they play her game. This in turn makes her a better designer.

Empathy Mapping

Shaina gets that she needs empathy as a designer, but she's not sure what that means. How can she figure out what her end users want and need?

There are many different things Shaina can do in this step. One way to develop empathy is by using an empathy map, or a visual representation of what users think, feel, say, and do.

An empathy map is a visual representation of what a user says, thinks, does, and feels
empathy map

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