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Empathic Design in Practice

A couple of years ago the Cleveland Clinic made the video, Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care, that gives you a good idea of the kinds of observations that come out of empathic design work, when designers put themselves in the shoes of people they’re designing for.

The video reveals people’s inner thoughts and anxieties: An older gentleman is being pushed in a wheelchair to an appointment he has been dreading; a woman is too shocked by the diagnosis she has received to begin to understand what the doctor is telling her about her options.


Imagine you were on the project team responsible for redesigning a product or service at this hospital. Seeing through these patients’ eyes instantly transforms them from “users” into humans, and that leads to better insights and solutions. This is the core idea of empathic design and it’s some of what I cover in my post, “Why Is Empathy Essential for Design?

But what precedes this research and what comes next? Empathic design is more than the observations you gather from walking in your users’ shoes and listening to them answer to your questions. That’s just one small part.

Many of our clients – even those who outsource design research to us – have asked us about folding empathic design into their own design practice. Here are some basic principles and actionable steps to take to begin to build a culture of empathic design:

1. Treat your users like product development partners throughout the process.

Researchers and designers are critical in setting the stage and making sure research is set up the right way, but at some point the end users need to be recognized as experts. Your own professional expertise is worth something, but you’re not the expert in this case! Be willing to step away from your opinions and personal judgment and to really listen to the user. Put him or her at the center of the process.


At Bresslergroup we try to involve users very early in the process so we can understand their pain points and aspirations while we’re exploring early solutions. We bring the users back into the process as we travel through development. We test concepts and prototypes with them repeatedly (as pictured above), at different points.

2. Don’t overlook the edge cases.

Edge cases – or atypical users – will have idiosyncrasies that often lead to the best insights. My favorite example of this is OXO Good Grip kitchen tools (pictured below), which came about when Sam Farber, the retired founder of a cookware company, noticed his wife’s mild arthritis making it difficult for her to handle a vegetable peeler.


Farber issued a brief to Smart Design for a line of kitchen tools that would be comfortable for home cooks with hand problems. OXO Good Grips ended up inspiring fierce brand loyalty from the whole spectrum of users. By applying the principle of universal design – to make things that are accessible to everyone — OXO’s designers created products that make life better for all of us.

This should be in all product briefs: Include the edge cases in your user research, because what’s good for them is likely to be good for everyone.

3. Understand that designers and researchers are interdependent.

Once upon a time, user research was very researcher-centric. This was a mistake, because designers gain major insights by participating in the research itself, and we’re able to squeeze a lot of juice out of research findings! (Guess which kid is the designer and which one is the researcher in the picture below.)


Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of segmenting and silos, especially in large corporations, where researchers are assigned to research and designers to design. But it’s critical for designers to be connected with the research, to be in the field, and to observe the research as it goes on, because they need to be able to envision the future and articulate the findings into actionable opportunities.

Andrew Golaszewski covers some of this in his post, Usability and Innovation: Friends of Foes?, in which he makes a case for researchers and designers to sit together at the project table.

4. Go beyond the present! Use empathy to envision the future.

Traditional research was very focused on the past and the present. This limited researchers significantly, because they weren’t thinking beyond today’s frustrations to expand on needs going forward. What could the product offer tomorrow? What are possible future use cases?


In practice, this involves asking people to envision how a product or technology might solve their problems in the future. When creating user personas, add aspirational information. (Traditionally these profiles only included precise documentation about the user today.) If she has two kids in middle school, what is her life going to look like down the road when they’re in high school? In two or five or ten years, where will he or she be and how can the product you’re developing, or the next-generation product or technology, help?

Making this part of the mix during a brainstorm, or a structured ideation session, really broadens the horizon for product development teams. And what’s more human-centered than taking a life’s journey into account? Another benefit: When designers actively anticipate the future and design for it, they make future-proofed products with longer life spans.

5. Balance the rational and emotional in your analysis of user experiences.

Traditionally user research was very much about generating quantitative data. The scientific rigor was there, but researchers weren’t looking at things that are more difficult to measure, such as emotion. Empathic design considers both.

A balance of rational and emotional comes into play during ethnographic research, where there’s often a disconnect between what people say and what they do. Emotions affect people’s behavior and perceptions greatly, making it difficult for them to evaluate their own actions.


This came up for us when we redesigned a scalpel used to make the initial incision during cataract surgery. Its minuscule, sharp blade was exposed, leading to injuries during quick handoffs between nurses and surgeons.

When we asked nurses to demonstrate how they passed the scalpel to the surgeon, they described and reenacted a very safe transfer. This is not what we saw when we observed actual surgeries. In their effort to get the scalpel into the surgeon’s hand as quickly as possible, they overlooked safety procedures.

The nurses weren’t trying to deceive us – they actually thought they were doing what they described. This is what they intended to do. We came to understand that in this particular context, safety was second to speed. Though the nurses knew how to protect themselves, they couldn’t do so and move as quickly as they needed to move during a speedy procedure. The rational explanation of their behavior did not match their actual, emotionally driven behavior. We needed to recognize this divide and factor it into our analysis.

6. Share the findings with everyone.

It’s critical to summarize the findings from ethnographic research in such a way that they’re easily disseminated throughout the entire team or organization.


Black & Decker has a smart strategy for making research findings accessible throughout their organization. They post it in the most universal space — inside their bathroom stalls. What an effective way to communicate to the company that empathic design is a core function! The bathrooms aren’t the only places where they share this info, but it’s an indication to everyone that empathy for users should be automatic. At SEEK, quotes from users along with their photos are posted up around the office.

Empathic Design in Action

I hope this list of empathic design principles helps you digest this philosophy and that you’re able to institute some of these ideas. Several of the principles came from a research paper published in the International Journal of Design called Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry. I encourage anyone thinking about this topic to read it in its entirety.

In it, researchers from Delft University of Technology describe partnering with Phillips Research in Eindhoven to implement empathic design as part of that company’s core set of beliefs. At the time Phillips was evolving from a technology-centric and technology-led company into a more user-centric one. As you can imagine, it’s not easy for a large company like this to shift its culture. It’s a challenge well worth taking on.