Empathy By Design – The Power Of Human Connection

If you could stand in someone else’s shoes… Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?

These words end an incredibly beautiful video below produced by the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education.

What if you could, just like in the video, see a thought bubble above every person’s head, telling you what they were thinking and feeling as you walked by?

In this thought-provoking video, titled “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care,” Cleveland Clinic created such a world. They wanted to explore what empathy means, the ability to understand and share in the feeling of another. They believe empathy takes on a new dimension in a hospital and health care, where there is the push and pull of health and sickness — and where giving and receiving care happens every day.

For so many years, hospitals and clinics were sterile, perfunctory structures that ignored the humanity of their patients and focused on the programmatic structure of their spaces. They were designed to optimize the diagnostic tools rather than the human being that were going to be in that building. (Also think about airports, libraries, subway stations…)

Think of this video as a design brief. How would you design a hospital or health care system that helps and supports each of the people and their circumstances that you see here? How would you change the space, the roles that staff play, the type, and manner in which patients receive information, and the support systems around patients and staff?

How do you go about being inspired by empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s context, emotions, goals and motivations.

Empathy is at the heart of design. Without an understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task. And empathy is all about human connection. When we relate to those around us by understanding their back stories and their circumstances, we improve the way we work, the way we live, the way we take care of one another, and the way we relate going forward.

That’s where Design Thinking comes in. It helps you center the user in the design process so that every design choice meets real human needs and enriches real human experiences.

And the first step to Design Thinking is leading with empathy

The role of Empathy in Design Thinking 

Empathetic design means getting into your end users’ heads to really understand their experiences and problems so you can design better solutions. It’s not only to design products and services but also experiences.

It’s easy to make assumptions from behind a desk about what users want in theory. After all, you’re the expert, right? But if you aren’t taking time to understand the user experience and listen to people, you might miss opportunities to design what people actually need or want.

And that’s bad for users and bad for design. 

That’s why empathy during the design process is critical. Developing an empathetic approach to design allows you to shelve your assumptions and get to the heart of what people want and need. In other words, empathy helps you understand the problem better, which leads to better solutions. 

Become an Empathetic Observer 

To understand people and connect with their experiences and problems, you have to be an empathetic observer. How do you do that? Empathy isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally, but it’s a skill you can cultivate. 

As you approach developing your empathy, you’ll need to:

  • Let go of your ego. In other words, it’s not about you. To understand and empathize with your users, you have to let go of your assumptions and preconceived notions, and center the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of your users. 
  • Embrace humility. You may be an expert in your profession, but that doesn’t mean you know everything. Practice humility as you observe your users and learn about their experiences. Be open to the fact that you can learn from them and be humble enough to accept new perspectives and consider solutions you hadn’t thought of.
  • Actively listen. Good listeners put aside their assumptions and quiet their inner monologue in order to take in what people are communicating. Don’t interrupt or steamroll your users. Instead, let them finish their thoughts so you can fully understand their perspective and experience. 
  • Assume a beginner’s mindset. It means starting with fresh eyes and no assumptions when you approach your research. This is a key part of Design Thinking with empathy because it helps you better understand how your users think about and experience problems (or your products). As you research and observe your users, always question your assumptions (even if you think you know the answer already), and listen openly without preconceptions. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

4 phases of Empathic Design Thinking

Empathy can be tough to get our heads around because it’s a soft skill. You can use these four main research stages to develop empathetic design: discovery, immersion, connection, and detachment. Follow these steps to make sure your design research is not only accurate and thorough but also empathetic. The goal is to develop empathy for your users with intention and attention so you can make a meaningful impact on their lives. 

  1. Discovery – During the discovery phase, you’re entering the world of the user and making connections. Identify and approach your users to start uncovering their behaviors and the (often unspoken) reasons for their behavior.  
  2. Immersion – Immersion is all about putting yourself into your users’ shoes. This involves fieldwork—actually going to your users’ environments to conduct research, perform the same activities, and learn first-hand what problems and needs exist. 
  3. Connection – The next step is to connect with your users’ experiences through your observations and research. It’s not enough to just go through the motions recreating your users’ experiences. It’s about getting curious and diving deeper to find what resonates. This is where you can build true empathy for your users and their specific needs.  
  4. Detachment – Finally, you need to take a step back and look at the problem zoomed out to a designer’s lens. Reflect on your experience and learnings then start to pull out key insights and generate ideas. 

Use an Empathy Map

An empathy map is a simple visual that outlines knowledge of your users’ behaviors and attitudes. Empathy maps help you build empathy for your users, synthesize your observations, and uncover key insights from your findings. 

Empathy maps are most useful at the beginning of the design process after user research but before requirements and concepting. The mapping process can help synthesize research observations and reveal deeper insights about a user’s needs. It can help guide the construction of personas or serve as a bridge between personas and concept deliverables.

When included in early project stages, the exercise helps you enter the user’s world and approach things from his or her point of view before creating solutions—whether it’s ideas for content, a webpage design, an app prototype, or a new service offering. The benefits include:

  • Better understanding of the user
  • Distilled information in one visual reference
  • Callouts of key insights from research
  • Fast and inexpensive
  • Easily customizable based on available information and goals
  • Common understanding among teams

How to create an Empathy Map

Step 1: Establish Focus and Goals

Who is the person for the map?
This is the user with who you want to understand and empathize. Summarize his or her situation and role. If you have multiple personas, each one will need their own map.

What is the desired outcome?
This is what you hope the user will do. What does success look like? For example, what does he or she need to do differently or decide? While the exercise is about building empathy and not selling or designing anything, answering this question helps focus participants and set context for the activity.

Step 2: Capture the Outside World

There’s no set order for completing each section, but it’s more productive to start with the observable activities in the user’s world. Participants often generate these more easily than the more introspective steps. Start by examining the user’s experience and imagine what it is like to be her. Complete the sections of the map to capture what she sees, says, does, and hears.

Step 3: Explore Inside the Mind

After completing the outside elements, the focus moves inside the mind to explore the thoughts and feelings that are internal to the user and not observable. These might be inferred, guessed, or captured in direct quotes during research. This is the central point of the exercise, as teams imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s head.

What does she THINK and FEEL?
What matters to the user that she is thinking about it? Consider the positive and negative sides of thoughts. What makes her feel good or bad? What does she worry about or what keeps her up at night? Her mind is exploring paths and possibilities as she considers doing or trying something. How does she feel? Frightened? Excited? Anxious?

Next, explore the specifics of her pains and gains. What do success and failure look like? Capture frustrations and challenges, the obstacles that stand in her way. What goals and dreams does she have? Gains are what she aspires to achieve or have.

Step 4: Summarize and Share

When all the sections are complete, take a moment to reflect. Have participants share their thoughts on the experience. Ask how it changed their perspectives or if it produced new insights. The purpose of the exercise is to put the user at the center of the participants’ minds. If the exercise leaves a lasting impact on the people who participated, consider it a success.

Create Customer Journey Maps 

Like empathy mapping, customer journey maps (CJM) help designers get into the heads of their users and focus on their needs. It will help you chart a hypothetical customer’s experience with your brand or company. You’ll map touchpoints in your product or service and how that customer may react to them, gathering insights along the way. This process helps you refine the customer experience into something seamless that inspires brand loyalty.

Both maps are built from the customer’s point of view, but journey mapping visualizes the entire customer experience with the brand over time whereas empathy maps hone in on a narrow view of a specific persona. In fact, multiple empathy maps can be incorporated into one customer journey map to illustrate user experiences at each unique touchpoint along the way. 

How to Create a Customer Journey Map

Step 1: Set specific goals for the map: What is your goal in making a CJM? What experiences is it based upon? What is it specifically about? These questions direct you to have a clear persona, which is helpful in accurately directing every aspect of CJM.

Step 2: Profile your personas and outline their goals: What is your goal in making a CJM? What experiences is it based upon? What is it specifically about? These questions direct you to have a clear persona, which is helpful in accurately directing every aspect of CJM.

Step 3: Narrow your focus to target customer personas: A customer journey map tracks the experience of one customer type for accurate reflection. Thus, it is best to highlight your particular customer persona.

Step 4: Outline all the touchpoints: This breaks the processes down into more detailed sub-processes. Ensure you add any necessary data stores and flows at this point.

Step 5: Decide which elements you want your customer journey map to highlight: Depending on the map’s purpose, you can choose from the four types of CJMs. These include the current state, day in the life, full state, and service blueprint.

Step 6: List the resources you’ll need for the journey: Highlight the resources that would go into creating the customer experience, then take inventory of the resources you have and the ones you have to acquire.

Step 7: Take the customer journey yourself by analyzing the results: This is the most important part of the journey that impacts business improvement. From the journey’s information, how can you better support customers?

Step 8: Make the essential changes: Data analysis should open your eyes to what you want your enterprise to be. To achieve insight, you’ll have to effect necessary changes. The changes are important as they directly correlate with what customers depicted as their pain points.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re designing a product, crafting a sales pitch, creating an ad, developing an app, or persuading your customers or your boss, you have to have a deep understanding of the needs or problems of your audience. This goes beyond observations and assumptions. It takes work to get to the truth or insight you want to reveal to your audience.

Good leadership also begins with empathy. That means understanding the individuals on your team deeply. Not just what they need to do great work, but what their life experiences are, and what their perspective on life is, so you can allow them to show up as themselves in the workplace.

Always listen before you lead. You can only get to the truth and insight if you have empathy. Start with listening to your audience or your community rather than pursuing your own vision of what something should look like. 

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”

David Kelley, Founder of IDEO

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

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