If you are a product manager, UX researcher, or UX designer, you have surely come across the term ‘empathic design’. Empathic design thinking is considered to be one of the most important tools in a designer’s arsenal when it comes to creating relatable and meaningful products.
If you are not sure how to include this approach in your design process, fear not. We have collated everything you need to know about empathic design in one article for you to master the basics of designing with empathy, plus ample examples!
Table of contents
What is empathic design?
Empathic design is an approach where empathy for the user is at the core of the design process. When designing with empathy, you focus on diving deep into your users’ needs, emotions, and lived experiences, a practice that fosters the creation of more relatable and meaningful digital products.
Empathic design and design thinking
Empathic design and design thinking are two terms that are intertwined. However, it is important to note that they are not the same. While both empathic design and design thinking are approaches to problem-solving, they are both different and often complement each other.
On the one hand, the empathic design approach puts empathy at the heart of the design process. The focus of this approach is on empathizing with the user that the design or product is intended to. Empathizing means that as a designer, you would need to step into the user’s shoes to get a better understanding of how they feel, how they act, and how they think.
Empathic design requires a deep connection with the user, which can be achieved through continuously seeking user feedback, mainly through qualitative research methods that can apply through the different stages of the product life cycle.
On the other hand, the design thinking approach is a framework for problem-solving, idea generation, as well as idea testing. Design thinking is a great tool to ignite innovation within the product team, as well as to create more fun, relatable, and usable digital products.
More specifically, the design thinking approach follows a specific and structured approach. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, this process consists of five different stages, which are: empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. Companies the likes of Apple, Google, and Airbnb have praised this design process model.
As you will have already noticed, empathy is an integral piece of the design thinking process.
Why does empathic design matter?
One might ask why empathic design matters. Due to the fast pace at which companies operate, when it comes to product development, designers tend to neglect empathic design. However, using this approach can make or break your product or new feature. Empathic design can have a greatly positive impact on your users and ultimately on your product.
- Empathic design allows for a user-centric approach to product design and development. This approach places research at the forefront, which allows for informed design decisions and more meaningful products. It can also greatly reduce the chances of your product failing.
- Designing with empathy contributes to an overall enhanced user experience. Empathizing with the users means that you can understand the challenges and pain points of your target users and work on designs that solve these. Again, this can lead to products that are more relatable and hence more successful.
- Empathy in the design thinking process can be a driver of innovation through the identification of unmet needs. Through research, product developers can pinpoint user needs that are unmet and work on ways to address those. This can be done via the development of a new service or a new feature.
- Using empathy in the design process fosters an emotional connection between the brand and the user. This leads to greater engagement as the user feels understood and heard.
Last but not least, by practicing empathy, you are also practicing ethical design, since you are more aware of the potential impact that your design decision can have on your user.
Empathic design key principles
Here are the key principles to have in mind when designing for empathy, these can help you build your design thinking toolbox.
Design for need
One of the most important principles when it comes to empathic design is to design for need. Designing for need means that as a designer or researcher, you have conducted thorough qualitative research to engage with your users and understand their needs and challenges.
By pinpointing those, you will be able to create innovative solutions that address those needs.
Design for purpose
Designing for purpose is another way to engage in empathic design practices. This principle involves engaging in user research so that you can dive deep into the goals and motivations of your users.
What do they want to achieve? What are their priorities and why?
By identifying those insights, you will be able to gather and prioritize all the ‘jobs to be done’ and create your solution to purposefully serve them.
Design for inclusivity & diversity
Another key principle when designing for empathy is to ensure that your products are inclusive. Designing for inclusivity and diversity means that as a designer, you have a thorough understanding of the unique and diverse range of needs that the users might have.
Designers need to always strive to create designs and products that take into consideration those unique needs in an effort to make more accessible and relatable products. Designing for diversity also allows the designer to step into the user’s shoes and design for them.
Design for emotional connection
Empathic thinking and designing entail acknowledging the important role that emotions play in user experiences. This involves not only understanding the emotional needs and wants of your users, but also taking into consideration the mental models of the users.
In this way, designers can create experiences that are more memorable and enjoyable. Creating storyboards or experience maps is a great way to visualize these experiences.
Design for ethos
Creating ethical designs is another key element of empathic design thinking. Designers need to be aware of the impact that their designs have on the user and empathize with the user’s rights.
Empathetic design process
The empathetic design process puts emphasis on user involvement and has different stages within the UX Design process. In the framework of continuous improvement, these stages are not linear, but rather cyclical, as designers iterate and constantly refine their design solutions.
The first stage of the empathetic design process is observing the users in order to uncover their thoughts, behaviors, actions, and challenges. Depending on the phase of the product life cycle that you are at, this can be achieved through various methodologies and tools.
At the discovery phase of the product cycle, in-depth interviews are a great way to engage with your users and get insights. Tools like UXtweak’s Session Replay Tool are a great way to get started on this.
2. Gather data
After observing and empathizing with the user, data collection should be the next item on your list.
At this stage, designers are required to collect data through various sources, such as, for example, running surveys or collecting user feedback, or even by taking into consideration any qualitative data that might be available from research tools like UXtweak.
The third stage of the empathic design process is analyzing the data and insights that you have gathered during the previous steps. During this stage, designers or researchers should analyze and synthesize relevant data in order to uncover common patterns and themes. This is the stage where, as a researcher or designer, you will be able to pinpoint the key insights and design opportunities.
The next step is to translate those key insights and design opportunities into something more tangible. At this stage of the empathic design process, designers build out their prototypes and mock-ups of their ideas.
It is worth noting at this stage that prototyping can take various forms—from high-fidelity prototypes to wireframes or sketches. These can help the designer and the whole team better visualize their ideas.
The final, but one of the most important stages of this design process, is testing.
At this stage, designers would need to thoroughly test their prototypes with real users to understand whether the design solution that they have created resonates with their target users. Testing can take various forms, however, it mainly involves observing how users interact with the prototypes. This allows them to ‘listen’ to the user’s needs and iterate the design solution accordingly.
In some cases, designers decide to test more than one design solution with their users. An excellent way to uncover insights, in this case, is to conduct a preference test.
To test the overall usability of your prototype use UXtweak’s Prototype Testing tool.
Learn more about Figma User Testing and how to conduct it.
Empathic design examples
By working with the previously mentioned key empathic design principles, and by religiously following the empathic design thinking process, one can create stellar digital products and solutions. Here are the ones that really stood out for us.
Airbnb’s Neighborhood Guides
Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and felt lost or have spent days planning out a trip trying to uncover hidden gems in the area that you were visiting? Well, Airbnb used empathy to step into their customer’s shoes and create the neighborhood guides feature to provide personalized recommendations from locals.
Those guides include everything from cultural activities to restaurants and attractions, creating a more authentic experience for the visitor. This is an exemplary way to use empathy when designing a solution.
Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller
Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is another great example of an empathetic design that promotes accessibility. The controller makes gaming more accessible for users with mobility issues. The controller is highly customizable and also compatible with assistive technology.
Headspace Meditation App
Although empathic design is applicable to all products and services, it is an internal part of any healthcare or wellness product. A great example of a product that uses empathy as its value proposition is the Headspace Meditation app.
This app is designed to help users practice a range of tailor-made wellness practices, including meditation and mindfulness. The design and visuals of the app feature calming sounds, easy-to-use interfaces, and calming visuals to create a relaxing experience for their users.
To sum it up
In a nutshell, empathic design is a design approach where empathizing with the users is at the core of all your design solutions. Empathic design is a great practice to ensure that you include your user’s feedback and thoughts on your design. This practice ultimately leads to the creation of more relatable products with higher user engagement and loyalty.
If you are looking to incorporate empathic design in your design practices, UXtweak is an excellent tool to start collecting feedback from real users and uncover their unmet needs.
Register for your free account and start empathizing with your users!