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Designing With Empathy

Why is this man wearing a pregnant suit? Is it possible to design for greater empathy? Can developing empathy for your target group help you design better brand experiences?

Why is Empathy Important in your Design Process?

Since the turn of the 21st Century, design has moved from products, to services, to experiences (and packaging is definitely part the experience a product creates).

And to effectively design an experience you must understand what the participants want to achieve in that moment, and their emotions while trying to achieve it.  It is not just knowing a person’s emotions, but having or experiencing those emotions yourself, that provides the empathic insights that are the key to innovation.

And because empathy is the key element of caring, when you design with empathy customers are much more likely to feel genuinely cared-for by the brand.  And we all know how good it is for brand-loyalty when customers feel cared for. 

Most designers already do this to some extent intuitively, but formalizing the steps can further increase your effectiveness in designing with empathy. Very basically there are two steps:  

1. First, collect evidence on the people you are designing for subjectively.  The best way to do this is to embed your self in the context, the situation, of those people in those moments to gain personal insights into their experience of that situation:

  • Watch what they do
  • Talk to them about what they did, and LISTEN to what they say
  • Try doing it yourself

2. Then you must step out of the context, return to the studio, and analyze the information you have collected objectively, on a human, even a primate, level and on a design thinking level.

Notice the empty chairs in the IDEO office.  It is common for the office to appear half empty because designers are out observing the people they are designing for.


To break it down further, there are four basic steps to develop empathy for the people of your target group:

1a. Discovery: Enter the user’s world and make contact with the user. If you are designing packaging for, say, baby-safe laundry detergent, you can put on a pregnant suit (see picture at top) and go with a pregnant woman to a shop, maybe take another child with you and a large purse.  How easy is it to bend over and pick up the product, or take it down from a shelf, and put in a basket?  Is the weight an issue?  Is the shape of the handle an issue?  

What is the experience of unpacking products and storing them in the kitchen?  What is easy, what is difficult? How do people feel about the amount of packaging? What methods have people devised to cope?

1b. Immersion: Wander around in the user’s world to collect qualitative data. Go with someone home from the store, help them put the products away, and then help prepare a meal. Go with them to take the garbage out, and to the recycling bin. What difficulties and challenges do they and you face?  What brilliant ideas do you see in action?

Can shopping with a baby alter how someone reacts to a design?  How does being in a hurry while shopping affect the experience, and how might designs be adjusted for those people? Is this a case where essentialism in design would be of increased importance?

1c. Connection: Listen to the users, let their emotions resonate with your own, and recall your own experiences to make connections and create meaning.  This is the step where empathy truly begins to be possible. Like with Karma Marketing, this build deeper relationships, which can greatly benefit brand loyalty.

How does shopping with a toddler affect the experience of the packaging and the product? Does it invite healthy interaction?  Does it invite fits of screaming? 

2. Detachment: Get back to your studio and analyze your data. Gather it all into one room, look for patterns and similar themes, group it into categories, then summarize your findings.  Once you feel you understand what the data is telling you, detach, step back into the role of designer, reflect and create ideas.


              An example of customer-centric service design with empathy. 

The Point: When you begin to design with empathy more intentionally, you will be surprised at how it affect your designs. Your designs will begin to take on a new depth, you will discover new ideas and new rationales, you will begin to see ways to make packaging less wasteful and more sustainable, you will begin to develop a greater connection to the market, and you will begin to innovate.  

Furthermore, as feelings of empathy have been shown to have positive effects on health and personality, you may even begin to notice nice effects in your personal life. Your clients will begin to notice a difference also, not just in sales, but brand loyalty, and customer goodwill. You may begin to see how your actions as a designer can affect whole companies, communities, and even the whole world.

For Brand Managers:  Designing, either products, brands or packaging, from a female perspective for female customers is becoming a necessity for growth (see our Womenomics post in Czech for references to the research that backs this up). Butterflies & Hurricanes is at the forefront of designing with empathy. We consider this in our concepts, designs and consultations with companies. We are looking forward to being your partner in reaching the  one market segment that is set for long term growth.

I would like to thank the INTERACTION DESIGN FOUNDATION. This blog post draws heavily on the article Empathy – How to Improve Your Designs by Developing Empathy for Your Target Group, by PRISCILLA ESSER. That article along with others from their site are very in-depth and contain much more detail and many more examples than the brief introduction offered here.

FURTHER READING: Heres a great article on designing with empathy from the dieline.

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