Four steps to promoting empathy in the design process


Design thinking is a human-centric, iterative process used to not only help designers not only understand their user, but also challenge assumptions and redefine problems. Empathy is a vital component of Design Thinking. As the first stage in the process, empathy helps us to see the world through another’s eyes - to feel and experience things as they do. Empathy prompts us to put aside our own preconceived ideas and doing our best to understand the thoughts and needs of others.

Putting aside our assumptions and ego in this process can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Like many aspects of product design, there are systems and processes that can guide us.

According to design researcher Froukje Sleeswijk Visser, the four steps to promoting empathy in the design process are discovery, immersion, connection, and detachment. In this article, we will outline each step to help understand how and why they are crucial elements of empathy in the design process.


The first step in the journey towards empathy in design thinking is discovery. This is the part of the process where you essentially attempt to see the world from your user’s point of view. Here we learn about the difficulties they face and discover the needs and desires that explain certain behavior.

The goal here is to utilize intuition and imagination to gain insight into your user and their perception of the world. It might seem obvious, but the better we can truly understand our user, the better our design.


The next step in the empathy framework is immersion. When we immerse ourselves into the user’s world, we can better understand the context in which they live their lives. The objective of this stage is to realize those intangible needs and feelings that will in turn influence the changes we make to our design.

This is when we experience what our user does - actually putting ourselves in their shoes and conducting research. For example, during our research for the Medibeacon Monitor, our Speck research and design team spent time observing in the actual hospitals to better understand the needs and environment where the monitor was going to be used.


The penultimate step is connection. When we interpret the world through the lens of our users’ values and beliefs, we can more effectively design for them. This is essential for making a connection. If you understand and identify with users’ context and feelings, you’re more able to have empathic insights.

When you engage with the people you design for, keep an open mind, and remain conscientious about developing empathy - you will have in place the key aspects of a successful Design Thinking process and ultimately, to the best possible end product.


Lastly, we arrive at detachment. This is when we find ourselves stepping back into our role as a designer and beginning to generate ideas based on what we’ve learned. How we interpret the clues from the empathic process is vital to the creation of truly useful user-centric designs.

Empathy is an important skill for design thinkers to master because it allows designers to better understand and discover inherent needs and emotions of those we are designing for. This allows for design solutions that are desirable, feasible and viable - otherwise known as an extremely successful design.

BlogNovember 10, 2020

Related Articles
No items found.
More Journals