Design Thinking: Empathy

UI/UX Design

User Research

An illustration of two characters sitting on the chairs chatting
An illustration of two characters sitting on the chairs chatting
An illustration of two characters sitting on the chairs chatting

What is Empathy?

Empathy is, in its most basic form, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Building empathy towards users comes as the first step of five within the widely used Design Thinking framework usually called the ‘empathise’ stage.

It calls upon the designer to put themselves in the user’s shoes, to better understand the reasoning behind their requirements and see things from their perspective.

In this article, the first in a series on Design Thinking, we’ll seek to explain why empathy is so important in design and more importantly, how you can achieve a more empathetic approach to design.

Why is Empathy Critical in Design Thinking?

When applied to design, empathy requires a heightened awareness of a user’s needs, wants, motivations and goals. To achieve this, there are a number of activities that we as designers can complete to help us in understanding our users more and becoming more empathetic towards them.

When we become more empathetic, we are able to digest information more efficiently and we can begin to see information and problems from the user’s view that were previously difficult to see and understand. Design Thinking is, therefore, a user-centric approach to design.

How to Build Empathy Within Design

User Shadowing

User Shadowing is one of many user research methods for Design Thinking. Shadowing can be a great way to get first-hand information from potential users. Whether it be when redesigning a current workflow or starting from scratch, completely understanding a day in the life of a user can provide a great insight into the issues they face on a day to day basis and how we can improve said issues.

Whilst user shadowing is too time-consuming to be carried out on a large scale, it can certainly be used as a base to understand key users and how their minds work. User shadowing can also be a useful method to build empathy towards users.

Read more about user shadowing in our Step-By-Step Guide here.

Journey Mapping

After understanding a typical day of a user and identifying pain points a worthwhile activity is to assemble a user journey that visualises a users interaction with your product.

This journey is normally depicted as a diagram split into stages that display every interaction customers go through with your company, services or product. It will help highlight key interactions customers have with your company and their feelings during this process. They often provide greater insight into pain points that may be experienced and offers a chance to amend those.

By using this method it enables you to view their experience as a whole without focusing on one particular interaction. This then allows for the refinement of all of these touchpoints and uncovers areas of opportunity to improve the customer’s experience. It also opens up useful discussion around issues like “why is this a pain point?” and “how can we improve this experience for the user?”

User Interviews

User interviews are a fundamental tool in gaining in-depth knowledge from real or potential users, they help provide insight into their goals and experiences regarding services or products. These are conducted to help inform the design development ensuring a more user-centric design that is catered to those identified needs.

User interviews can be even more insightful by applying the percentile method. This involves taking extreme ends of the spectrum into account and not focusing solely on the average user. For example, interviewing users with impairments who may require screen readers or who may suffer from colour vision deficiency (CVD).

User Interviews method can be applied to multiple instances including products. Interviewing users who are absolutely familiar with a product can provide meaningful insights into key issues. Those who are unfamiliar can inspire improvements from their insights.

Empathy Mapping

Empathy Maps put the user front and centre and are a simple way to stimulate fresh ideas about how they behave. The concept was created byDave Gray to address the need to recalibrate our attitude towards empathy in design thinking. Empathy mapping focuses on visualising your user’s thoughts, feelings and actions to create a vibrant picture of who they are. An empathy mapping session can open up research findings to to the floor for your design teams and others involved in the project to gain new perspectives.

The map is divided into four quadrants that focus on what users:

  • Do

  • Think

  • Say

  • Feel


A persona is a fictional, yet realistic, representation of a typical user or customer. Personas should be utilised in the early stages of the design process, where they will help influence design decisions by prioritising user needs before any development is undertaken.

The real value obtained from personas is the goals and motivations that are identified. Understanding these contribute towards a user-centric service or product. By generating multiple personas it allows teams to make better decisions based on the defined goals and motivations.

Asking 5 Whys

The ‘5 Whys’ method is a simple yet powerful tool to help identify the root cause of problems. The method was developed by Taiichi Ohno, Former Executive Vice President of Toyota, in an effort to improve their manufacturing process, but has now been widely adopted. By continually asking ‘why?’ it helps to peel away the encasing symptoms to determine the problem. It may need to be asked 3 or 6 times to achieve this, but the methodology is the same.

An example of the ‘5 whys’ by Taiichi Ohno:

  1. “Why did the robot stop?” - The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.

  2. “Why is the circuit overloaded?” - There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.

  3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?” - The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.

  4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?” - The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.

  5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?” - Because there is no filter on the pump.

The ideology behind this is to help you get deeper into the issue to identify the most effective solution. Notably, without utilising the 5 whys in the example above, an employee may have only replaced the fuse rather than uncovering the root cause.

It All Starts with Empathy

The empathy stage is crucial for designers providing us with an opportunity to understand users and their needs. There are various activities we can undertake to try and empathise with these users more effectively. Stepping into a user’s shoes provides a vast amount of insights. These insights help deliver great user-centric products.

This is the first article in a 5-part series exploring design thinking. Learn more about the next step in Design Thinking in ‘Define’

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