Transitioning from the Empathize Stage to the Define Stage in Design Thinking

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

You've immersed yourself into learning about your customers and their needs. Now it's time to define the key problem. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the transition between empathizing and defining.

From Observation to Definition

The beginnings of the wildly popular shoe company known as TOMS shoes started when its founder immersed himself in the culture of another country. While there, Blake Mycoskie learned more about the difficulties that children without adequate footwear faced growing up. When he returned to the United States, he took what he'd learned, defined the problem he had observed and formed a company, now worth millions, dedicated to donating a pair of shoes for every pair purchased.

Mycoskie navigated the transition from the Empathize stage of design thinking to the Define stage. What exactly does that mean? It means he was able to take what he observed in Argentina and define it as an actionable problem statement. From there, he could brainstorm solutions and then implement them.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This lesson is all about getting from the stage of learning more about your customers and their needs to developing a problem to solve. Let's dive deeper.


The transition between the Empathize and Define stages hinges on the concept of unpacking. No, we're not talking about what happens when you return from a long weekend away on a trip. But rather, unpacking what you've learned by talking to, observing and learning about your customers and creating a system for turning those insights into something actionable.

For example, you may know that your customers have trouble with finding a compact beach chair they can toss in their cars that will also allow them to recline and relax at their destination. You may listen to them relay their problems to your company. You may even observe them struggling to get their existing beach chair to fit tidily into their trunk. But, what will you do with the information once you have it?

That's where the transition between the two stages becomes necessary. It takes what you glean from Stage 1 of design thinking and gets the team ready to define the problem in Stage 2.

Moving from Empathy to Definition

Unpacking insights from the Empathize stage doesn't have to be a complicated process. The tasks involved in synthesizing empathy and definition can be as simple as breaking out a stack of sticky notes.

The primary goal of the unpacking stage is sharing what you've learned with other designers and the rest of your team. Since brainstorming, prototyping and testing are team assignments, it is important that everyone on the team is on the same page about the information gathered in the Empathize stage. Having a complete understanding of your customer and his or her needs will help you form a problem statement, which is a written expression of your customer's problem. This is the information from which you will start to ideate later in the design thinking process.

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