The role of empathy in the design process.

How would you feel if you pick up a design or product and realise that the designer had you in mind when creating it? Let me guess, a tiny bit of growing loyalty? It sure feels good when it is evident that you, as a user or member of the “highly esteemed target audience” was right at the centre of the thought process as a brand, material or product was designed.

In an increasingly individual and personalized world, with customers jumping ships to alternative experiences that just feel more right, empathy makes an important ingredient in creating a product that will stand the test of time. In simple terms, it would help to endear your brand to the people you have in mind. All you have to do is to indeed have them in mind— understand their thoughts, feelings, and probable response from their point of view, rather than from your own.

If you ask me what makes a product/design a successful one, my yardsticks would be divided in three:

  1. Functionality/Usability
  2. Desirability/Appeal
  3. Feasibility

Practically and innovatively factored in the design thinking process for any brand, the above-mentioned yardsticks can help to create a product/design that works. Importantly, it clearly performs the intended function with relative ease in terms of understanding how to use it, it appeals to the emotion, wants and logic of the target audience and the contextual application is spot on.

Hence, in trying to achieve functionality and desirability, empathy is key. It is arguably one of the most important elements as it precedes ideation, prototyping and design execution. Designing from the heart is simply putting the end users in mind while thinking up a solution for your client.

Design should primarily solve problems — be it designing a basic information website, communication materials for an event, an app that makes financial transactions easier or a simple piece of equipment etc. Whatever it is, there has to be a problem your design solves for the client or end users, an important reason to design from your heart.

Your design will be “consumed” by a myriad of end users with different personality types, backgrounds and characteristics. While it is very difficult to appeal to everyone that use your design, it’s imperative that you appeal to almost everyone — since you’re designing for them. This is like democracy, your design wins when almost everyone if not everyone likes it and are able to use it.

That said, how do you design from the heart?
It’s really simple; ask them questions and then, think for and with them. That’s it? Think for them? Yes, think for them.

The first step is to understand why you or the client wants to create the product/design. What is the problem that needs to be solved? Does this product/design really solve the problem? Understanding the problem and how your design will help to solve it is very important; it’s the very first step in creating a design that works.

The next step is to understand your client’s target — this is where you conduct market research. What does an average user of the product look like? Are they conservative or reactionary? What is their age range: youths, middle-aged, upwardly mobile or middle class? What appeals to them? Would they be attracted to a lot of colours, images, illustrations or icons? What would make them use/keep using the product? Honestly answering these questions helps you create a design that an average user can relate with — a product/design that actually works for them.

To successfully design a product that works, you need to set aside assumptions and make decisions based on facts and findings. Every new brief becomes a chance to start afresh and create something new.

Imagine if you have to design the user interface of an adult education web/mobile app, using a lot of script fonts is something you would essentially avoid because they are a lot harder to read. This is what designing with the heart is about; factoring in the reaction of your end users into every decision making process. Hence, it’s important to get your facts and figures right as the usability of your design depends on it.

Conclusively, empathy is important for every designer because it gives us a chance to understand and discover the needs and emotions of the people we are designing for. This, in turn, helps us create solutions that meet the parameters of a successful product or service: functionality, appeal and feasibility.

Designing with empathy helps us create a human-centred products/designs.

  • Aluko Brown (Senior Designer, FourthCanvas)

Leave a Reply