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

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

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.

According to Forbes, human-centric business strategies are now a must across all levels of an organization to make sure customer feelings, opinions and motivations are always taken into account.

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

In short, it all comes down to empathy. A business must understand and empathize with their customers’ needs and wants in order to find success in the market.


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 the 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.


Case Study: Netflix

netflix empathy

Netflix is a perfect example of a company that uses design thinking principles when it comes to their user experience. They are constantly monitoring user behavior and preferences, then transforming that data into an algorithm that can suggest tv shows and movies for each user to watch. This approach allows Netflix to create a highly personalized and intuitive user experience, with features like personalized recommendations, intuitive search functionality, and seamless navigation. 

Back in 2017, Netflix noticed that a large numbers of users were manually fast forwarding through the first few minutes of the TV series they were watching. This user behavior indicated that most customers did not want to watch the opening credits of the series they were watching. In response to this data, Cameron Johnson, the director of product innovation, suggested the “skip intro” button.

“Our goal was to make this option as simple as possible while also giving members flexibility if they want to listen to that catchy theme song again (and again). The button should appear on screen only when needed and it should work with a single click,” said Johnson.

The button was added in August of 2017 and was immediately a success, receiving overwhelming positive feedback from consumers. Today, many other streaming services, such as HBO Max and Disney Plus, have adopted the “skip intro” button as well.

In this case, by using design thinking principles, Netflix was able to improve the user experience and ensure that their customers continued to subscribe and remain loyal to their company.


Case study: Airbnb

airbnb empathy

Airbnb is another great example of a company implementing design thinking. They embraced design thinking to solve many 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.

Later, in 2020, when COVID-19 hit, the company was forced to pivot in a myriad of ways, but it never lost it’s human-focused mission at the heart of the company. Instead they launched the “Go Near” campaign in the summer of 2020 to promote domestic travel and economic growth. They knew their consumers were antsy to travel after months of near lockdown and they also knew they needed to show consumers they could do it safely. So they partnered with surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy to develop an enhanced cleaning protocol for their hosts to follow. The company then made sure to clearly indicate on the website which hosts had opted into this enhanced protocol, so consumers could feel safe choosing a rental.

In taking on these changes rooted in design thinking principles, Airbnb was able to survive the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, bounce back and continue to grow their revenue.


From empathy to precision definitions

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.


In our next blog on design thinking, we’ll explore how to precisely define the problem from the user’s point of view. Stay tuned!


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