Empathy in Design

What is Empathy?

Before we get to the root of this blog post, it’s important to note the definition of empathy. Often confused with sympathy, empathy is the act of understanding another’s feelings, while sympathy is the act of showing concern for someone else. Where expressing sympathy means maintaining a distance or pitying them, empathy welcomes a sense of closeness and feeling with one another. It allows us to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, understand where they’re coming from, and connect with them on a deeper level.

So, you ask, why is empathy important in the design world?

If You Don’t Understand Who, Why Are You Doing It?

Personas matter. How do you begin to understand the proper design approach if you don’t understand a customer’s desires, wants, or needs? To design a successful product, you must be willing to fully immerse yourself into the client’s world. In doing so, you learn how you would react to certain situations and understand more about user experience. Without empathy, design is a moot point. It allows design teams to offer multiple design solutions and encourages effective teamwork in the workplace. 

Additionally, to be relevant, targeting a user demographic helps you visualize what the product’s design should look and feel like. It takes empathy to figure out the proper demographic positioning, which allows for optimal product-market fit and more revenue.

Just Because YOU “Like” It, Doesn’t Mean It Will Sell

Photo courtesy of Learning Solutions

How do you sell a product if you’re only designing to your own personal preferences?

According to Haley Grant’s article, “The Empathetic Design Approach,” she states, “If a client feels that their individual needs and ideas are not addressed or don’t matter to the design team, they will not feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the project.” At the end of the day, we all want to feel proud of the work we are putting out. An empathetic approach to the design process enables the team to resonate with the client and, ultimately, with the end-consumer. Yes, there will be times when the client feels as though they are the end-consumer and will attempt to take over the design process; however, expressing empathy builds a sense of trust between the design team and client, resulting in a more synergistic environment.

When you focus on the idea of satisfying a specific persona, you learn to think outside of the box, and are motivated to build something better.

Hatch Duo

On the other hand, in Doc Parsons’ article, “Designing with Empathy: Don’t,” Parsons takes a different approach to designing with empathy. He argues, “Going through the emotional turmoil of actually being empathetic with someone isn’t going to help you build something better.” While Parsons makes a valid point, in our eyes, when you begin to understand different points of view, you approach design solutions with a more open-mind, thus creating endless boundaries for creativity. Ultimately, we think that expressing empathy and attempting to connect with various personas actually inspires more creative thinking–it requires empathy to understand what your target audience will respond to. When you focus on the idea of satisfying a specific persona, you learn to think outside of the box and feel inspired to build something better.

Moreover, as consumers, we often love to complain or to compare and contrast. This is a huge reason why big brands have social media accounts in the first place: to get user reviews, spruce up customer service, and learn more about what is trending to inspire future products. If brands aren’t taking user experience into consideration or aren’t aware of their needs, how would their products sell?

So, How Do You Design With More Empathy?

We find it easier to identify demographics (or personas) and allow them to shape our mood boards and aesthetic themes. Utilizing mood boards helps us find inspiration by featuring the tones, values, and textures we hope to capture in every design. CMF, or “Color-Material-Finish,” contributes to brand recognition and opens the door for products to reach their full market potential.

Photo courtesy of BuiltIn

Additionally, having an internationally diverse team can account for innovative solutions that aren’t as transparent. For example, regional aesthetics differ from North American design compared to Asian or European design. Diversity allows us to have a deeper understanding of cultural backgrounds and experiences, and ultimately, capture a more significant percentage of clientele motivations and needs. We strive to create a work environment where we can open the door to a wide range of talent, but most importantly, learn from one another. With a culturally diverse team, we can culturally empathize to a much more accurate degree.

Photo courtesy of TheDailyStar

First impressions always matter. Understanding visual cues play a vital role in designing with more empathyDepending on facial expressions and cues of sincerity, clients will easily read how much you care about their needs and automatically have an idea if they want to work with you or not. Have you ever heard of the saying, “When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’? Be curious, ask questions, and let the client know that you will design with them in mind. We’ve found that fewer assumptions and more observations and interpretation of those observations through a design-centric lens allow for a more accurate and smoother collaboration process.

Try More Empathy

We all want to be understood–it’s a basic human need that allows us to create emotional awareness, connect, and support one another. When it comes to our work environment, we try to empathize with our internal teams to output the best work quality. To retain the best talent within the Bay Area/Silicon Valley, we have to empathize with Gen Z / Millennial designers to shape a working environment conducive to their lifestyles. This means less rigid meetings, opportunities to work remotely, and the encouragement of proper work/life balance. We find that valuing and empathizing with our team’s lives away from work brings out the best talent and results here in the studio.

In an industry where empathy is not always valued, we pride ourselves on building a positive community that prioritizes communication and idea exchange. When we understand the users’ wants and needs, we try to focus on designing something that fulfills those needs or exceeds expectations. Not only will genuine empathy pave the way to authenticity, but it may also be the very thing you need to innovate.

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