Design Thinking Empathy: Human-Centric Solutions

Ellen Gregory

The heart of design thinking focuses on the end-user that you’re designing for and is broken down into the 5 phases starting with design thinking empathy. 

The design thinking empathy stage is an absolutely essential step as it revolves around gaining a deep understanding of the people you are designing for. It begins with a series of questions that get to the heart of the problem, the assumptions, and the implications so that you can understand their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations. 

Ultimately design thinking empathy asks, “who is the human behind it and what's the human need?” By successfully answering this question, we embrace simple mindset shifts and tackle problems from a new direction that helps designers create innovative solutions, overcome challenges, and produce incredibly successful results. 


design thinking stages
Design thinking empathy asks, “What's the human need?”Source: Shutterstock

Reframing the problem with empathy & human-centric solutions

Design thinking is a powerful tool for solving problems that are either unknown or unclear. The essential pillars of design thinking are all about re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, brainstorming to think outside of the obvious solutions, and adopting a hands-on approach in the design thinking prototype stage and testing stage. Anyone who is creating something intended to be used by another person will greatly benefit from creating human-centric products, services, content or designs. With endless resources at our disposal, anyone can learn, develop and implement design thinking strategies into their design. 

As outlined in our recent post, Design Thinking: How to Execute Exceptional Designs & Think Outside the Box, the overall process of design thinking is an iterative process that aims to understand the user’s challenges by identifying alternative strategies and creative solutions that are not apparent at our initial level of understanding. It is typically broken down into the 5 following phases:

1. Empathize

2. Define

3. Ideate

4. Prototype

5. Test


design thinking process
Create effective designs with the 5 stages of design thinking.

Develop empathy towards others

The five phases do not have to follow any specific order. Often they will occur simultaneously and be repeated several times throughout the process. The purpose of the design thinking empathy process is it enables you to:

  • capture the specific mindset and needs of your end-user 
  • identify and define the problem to form solutions around
  • create opportunities based on the needs of your end-user
  • find innovative solutions starting with quick, low-fidelity experiments 
  • provide insight into your end-users’ biggest challenges

You might notice that when design thinking is successfully implemented, the crux of its success revolves around understanding the end-user and designing human-centered solutions. Keeping the big picture in mind throughout will help keep you on track. With that being said, in this post, we will focus on how this is done through the design thinking empathy stage. 


developing empathy for others
Reframe the problem with empathy & human-centric solutions.

Design thinking empathy methods

One of the best ways to develop empathy and an understanding of your user is to observe them without imposing our assumptions or knowledge onto them. Simply take a step back to measure the success or pain points real users experience from their perspective. Passively engaging with them in interviews, observing them, and putting ourselves in their shoes, so to speak, is the first step to gaining deeper insights into their situation. 

Anyone can learn, develop and implement design thinking empathy by practicing and understanding design thinking methods. Here are a few strategies and methods to consider during the design thinking empathy stage. 

  • Adopt a beginner’s mindset
  • Observe impartially by asking “What?” “How?” “Why?”
  • Conduct interviews, empathically
  • Build empathy with analogies
  • Use photo and video user-based studies
  • Use personal photo and video journals
  • Bodystorming
  • Create a design thinking empathy map


design thinking empathy
Learn, develop, practice, and implement design thinking empathy.

Adopt a beginner’s mindset

To better observe and understand users, it’s important to adopt the mindset of a beginner and remove our preconceived notions, assumptions, and experiences. Since it’s impossible to rid yourself of these entirely, the best way is to constantly remind yourself to observe impartially, question everything, and really listen to what the user is saying, how they say it, the language they use, and their behavior. 

What? Why? How?

Recording the  “Whats”, “Hows” and “Whys” of a person during observation will help us detach from our assumptions and understand the underlying, abstract motivations driving the actions we observe. Here we can record “What” has happened. “How” the person completes the task, including whether they are smiling, frowning, struggling, perplexed and so forth. Then take educated guesses regarding the person’s motivations and emotions. 

Conduct interviews, empathically 

In order to yield the most results from your interviews, conduct your one-on-one interviews with genuine empathy. This way, you can truly connect with your real user, gain greater insights, and get to the root of their needs, hopes, desires, motivations, emotions, and goals. 

Come prepared with a set of questions that enables the design team to target specific areas of information. Before the interviews, brainstorm questions with your team and consider creating lists that are centered around specific themes or topics, so the interview flows more naturally.

Build empathy with analogies

When we focus too much on a specific thing, we can lose sight of alternative solutions. Analogies are an innovative tool that can help generate new insights. Comparing one domain with another allows us to view things from a different perspective, which can result in new creative solutions. Often, these solutions are not initially obvious, but can be infinitely powerful. Consider creating an 'inspiration board' with notes and pictures that focuses on similar aspects between multiple areas. 

design thinking empathy: observations
Uncover needs users are unaware of, or can’t accurately express.

Use photo and video user-based studies

This method helps you uncover needs users are often unaware of, or can’t always accurately express. Typically users are observed in either their natural setting, or during a set-up observation test.

Once you’ve identified the right end-users, record them while they’re experiencing the problem you’re aiming to solve. Observing what was said, the feelings that were evoked, and behaviors noted, will help guide your innovative solutions. Tools such as CloudApp's GIF screen recording lets you easily share your screen recording with the rest of your team.

Use personal photo and video journals

Similarly to the above, you can observe your user in their natural environment, except in this case you give the camera to your users, with instructions to take pictures of or to video-record their activities while they’re experiencing the problem you’re aiming to solve. 

The benefit to this is that you are completely removed and able to observe without interfering in any way. This is an exceptional way to gain invaluable personal experiences that reinforces the human aspect of design throughout the process. 

Bodystorming

Bodystorming is an exceptional way to practice empathy, as it immerses you fully in the users’ environment. To perform bodystorming, you wear a special pair of goggles that simulate vision impairments and try to accomplish a simple task while wearing the goggles. In order to implement Bodystorming, create an environment and atmosphere that accurately depict the users’ setting and is filled with things you would find in a real-world environment. Duplicating the real-world environment helps boosts your empathy, understand how solutions will work, and give you a hands-on reference point for later in the process. 

Create a design thinking empathy map

A design thinking empathy map provides four major areas to focus our attention on, which gives us an overview of a person’s experience. The four major areas reflect four key traits and refer to what the user: Said, Did, Thought, and Felt. The first two are a bit easier, but determining what they thought and felt requires careful observations and analysis. When asking what the user thought? Consider, what the user might be thinking, their motivations, goals, needs, and desires. From this, ask yourself, what does this tell you about his or her beliefs? In reference to what they felt, you’re asking about the user's emotions. Subtle cues, such as body language, word choice, and tone of voice can be infinitely valuable. 



design thinking empathy map
Design thinking empathy map helps determine what users think and feel.

Test with extreme users

Extreme users are a select group of people that will typically provide excellent insights that other users often won’t disclose. These groups will often magnify problems and needs. Once you’ve identified your group, engage with them to establish their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. From there, evaluate the needs that mainstream users might have trouble expressing. While you may not be able to please the extreme users, this is a good reference point for improving the experience for your more average or the majority of your users.

The power of design thinking empathy: successful examples

Design thinking empathy is an undeniably powerful tool for companies when properly applied. As we know, design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that dives into understanding the end-user by challenging assumptions, redefining problems and creating innovative solutions. 

Design thinking has been widely adopted across the globe and is being taught at leading universities. One of the best ways to understand the process is to see what it looks like in practice. In Voltage Control’s case study, they found 8 design thinking examples that successfully utilized the design thinking process. 


design thinking empathy examples
Design thinking aims to identify alternative strategies and creative solutionsSource: Spotify


Leading brands, including Apple and Google, continue to successfully implement these design strategy methods, which provides them real and measurable results, and also gives them a competitive edge. By going through the design thinking process, they have been able to transcend the market and produce products that perfectly suit the end-users needs. There are tons of successful design thinking examples that perfectly illustrate the importance of design thinking, including PepsiCo, Nike, Nordstrom, Uber, and IBM. 

Connecting the dots

Design thinking empathy is only 1 of 5 essential design thinking stages. Once you’ve developed a strong understanding of it, then it’s time to move onto the next stages. Keep in mind that design thinking is a non-linear process, so you will return to this stage to gather new information and tweak your design accordingly. 

Design thinking is a proven problem-solving method that employs successful results because it focuses on solutions, not the problem. A primary element of the design thinking empathy is thinking and ideating on meeting a customer’s needs. With it, you are pulling together the most desirable solution from a human point of view within the confines of what is technologically feasible and economically viable. By combining creative and critical thinking, information and ideas are organized in a way that ensures decisions are made, situations are improved, and problems are solved. Considering how difficult it is for companies, products or services to stand out from the rest of the competitors, implementing design thinking will give you an upper hand. 



design thinking empathy identify needs
Design thinking empathy identifies the needs that users have trouble expressing.

Implement tools and strategies that reinforce design thinking empathy 

The key to empathy is staying connected and deeply engaged. It’s crucial to our success, personally and professionally. Keep everyone on the same page by using your office space to generate better design thinking empathy, and utilizing design tools is a great way to take notes, share your work, and stay informed. CloudApp offers a variety of features that let you instantly share your work with others, and receive invaluable insight based on direct input and real user interaction to enhance the success of your design think empathy stage.

Join the Discussion

New Research!
We surveyed office workers about remote work and collaboration. See the results and get prepped for the modern workplace.
See the report