5 Steps of Design Thinking Part 1: A Crash Course in Empathy


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Picture an elegant, streamlined, massively powerful technological solution that nobody wants. There’s no need to imagine it. They are everywhere, all around. The business world is littered with the wreckage of technologies that ignored the very first rule of excellence in design: user experience rules.

Want to know how to make meaningful connections with your users? We can help. Yes, let's chat!

The principles of design thinking start from a “human-centric point of view” which sets the foundation for all other decisions. No technology or solution is inherently valuable. It can only be valuable if it makes life better for some set of end-users.

In our earlier blog, we specified Empathy as Step 1 of the design thinking solution matrix. In other words, before a design team can even define the problem properly, they have to see the situation as it is through the eyes of the end-user.

Empathy and Design Thinking

At Stanford’s d.school, where Design Thinking began, their advice for Step 1 states, “Empathy is the centerpiece of a human-centered design process. The Empathize mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge. It is your effort to understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them.”

Surveys and interviews are not going to be enough. The design team should seek out ways to observe the end-user as naturally as possible within relevant contexts. Pay special attention to the disconnect between what users say and what they do. Many users practice simple workarounds and alternatives that they won’t even think to mention. Designers won’t know how to ask the right questions until they observe users trying to solve the problem on their own.

Observation case study: Uber

Consider the case of Uber. In estimating the market for Uber’s potential customers without understanding the user, teams might be tempted to look at customers who currently use taxis. In fact, studies show that that the low costs and psychological boosts from controlling an on-demand service have won over users that commonly use alternatives. These users previously have “taken transit, walked, biked or avoided the trip.” This is true even for customers who stated in surveys that they prefer alternative transportation methods in order to reduce pollution from private cars.

In addition to the power of careful observation, the design team will need to bring on talent with innate curiosity. A facility for wonder is one of the basic building blocks of user engagement. Asking why in different ways allows users the freedom to open up the dialog and transform a common interview into a real conversation. Inside the user’s meanderings and pauses are answers to what truly matters to them. Designers often find that the ROI on digressions can be off the charts.

Curiosity case study: Airbnb

A great example of how this works in the real world involves designers at Airbnb. They embraced design thinking to solve many layers of challenges, especially in helping customers get more comfortable with such an innovative business model. In conversations with customers, one designer realized that their star rating system of apartments was too utilitarian. To warm up the users, he suggested changing “stars” to “hearts.” User engagement immediately jumped by 30 percent.

Among the biggest roadblocks to empathy are the designer’s own set of unstated assumptions about the problem. To surface and examine those assumptions takes a scientific mindset. To then replace those assumptions with the user’s viewpoint takes an artist’s sensitivity. That’s why developing empathy is the most difficult but also the most valuable step in the design thinking process.

From empathy to precision definitions

In our next blog, we’ll go deeper into options for executing the next stage of the design thinking journey: how to precisely defining the problem from the user’s point of view.

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