Empathic Design: The Most Difficult Simple Approach to Successful Design

In his book “Change by Design,” Tim Brown describes empathy as “the mental habit that moves us beyond thinking of people as laboratory rats or standard deviations.”

Unlike the marketing research that deals with numbers and facts, empathic design tries to meet users’ needs and even thinks in terms of what they may need to make their life much easier. Empathic design aims to build an emotional relationship between the end consumer and the product by achieving a better understanding of the user experience and users’ needs at an early stage of new product development (NPD).

While other marketing methods put a high priority on the product and its sales, empathic design puts the end user and building that emotional connection between the consumer and the product first. Putting the consumer first can be considered a strong marketing objective of empathic design.

The Benefits of Empathic Design

Beyond the simple aim of empathic design to create an emotional relationship between the consumer and the product, empathic design can help companies in multiple disciplines. Conducting the proper research to target empathic design not only can build this connection but also can help a company innovate new products or solutions for problems the user never asked for or never thought could be solved. For some products, innovation does not require creating a new product but rather improving an existing product in order to meet the current consumer needs.

From a marketing context, empathic design can lead to acquiring market segments through the exploration of unexpected and unmet needs of the end consumer.


Empathic Design Methodologies

While designers should be good at understanding the problems or projects at hand, empathic design methodologies focus even more on understanding the end user’s needs or possible undiscovered needs. This understanding can be achieved through a number of methods, starting with asking questions about user behavior. As empathic design is closely related to human-centered design, similar questions can be asked in both approaches. In order to achieve a human-centered design approach, three main question should be asked, according to The Golden Circle concept discussed by Thomas and McDonagh in their research, “Empathic Design: Research Strategies,” published in The Australasian Medical Journal:

  • Why are we achieving this specific goal?
  • How can we achieve this goal?
  • What is the outcome after achieving this goal?

One of the companies that applied empathic design with human needs in mind was Danone. In 1996, Danone partnered with Grameen to build a yogurt manufacturing plant in the Bogra District of Bangladesh. The project aimed to help supplement Bangladeshi children’s dietary deficiencies (addressing the why). Building this plant and recruiting community-wide support for its operation was the method to achieve this goal (addressing the how). The outcome of the project is clearly evident in the pride of employees over their positive impact on other people. This example and other similar experiences were discussed further by Battarbee, Suri, and Howard in their IDEO paper, “Empathy on the Edge.”

Danone Bangladesh
Grameen Danone Foods Ltd (image source: Danone Community)

This experience not only reflects positively on the community but on the organization as well; Danone project manager Marie Soubeiran noted the impact “has transformed Danone culturally.”

Empathic design requires designers to put themselves in the shoes of end users and consider what they really need and what results will be produced described in the Empathy on The Edge (PDF) published by the IDEO: “People who cannot temporarily let go of their role or status or set aside their own expertise or opinion will fail to empathize with others who have conflicting thoughts, experiences, or mental models.”

The Impact of Empathic Design in the Rise and Fall of Software Design

In light of my digital design background, empathic design also plays an essential role in the software niche that was not mentioned during my research on this topic. In an age of social networking and building web applications that attract billions of users, as in the case of Facebook and Twitter, empathic design is key to the design process.

In every digital design project, there is user experience (UX) research that evaluates the end user and contributes importantly to building social applications that meet end users’ needs. Some software applications fall short of achieving this goal, while other user interfaces outperform their competitors and achieve a strong emotional relationship with their users, similar to the success of Apple software and hardware products.

In the 1990s, both Facebook and MySpace began as digital tools to extend social interaction. Facebook was able to attract more users because its frequent updates to the user interface provided users with what they needed from a social networking application.


Empathic design bridges the wide process gap between the designer and end user and allows designers to put themselves in the end user’s shoes, which helps for better understanding of consumer needs and opens new marketing opportunities. Applying design empathy requires methodologies that revolve around asking questions and trying to understand the end user.

While empathic design is applied to digital design and interactive design through user experience studies, there is not yet enough research surrounding digital design processes that follow empathic design approaches.

Further readings:

Empathy on the Edge PDF (2014) by Battarbee K., Suri J., and Howard S. (IDEO)

Change by Design (2014) by Brown, T. (IDEO)

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design by Leonard D. and Jeffrey R. (Harvard Business Review)


Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of Designorate.com. I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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