Does empathy lead to a better design?

By Brett Capron.

Design Thinking is a process used by product designers to develop innovative products that are engaging to use, feasible to manufacture, profitable to sell and, perhaps most importantly, beneficial for broader community stakeholders. A crucial stage in the Design Thinking process is the Empathy stage, where designers seek (funnily enough) to empathise with the product’s end user. Done correctly, empathy lays the foundations for break-through idea generation and concept development that meets (often latent) user needs.

So what is empathy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, and the key element here is sharing the feelings of others.

My wife and I recently moved house. With our first child on the way, we decided that our two-bedroom inner city townhouse was too small. Ultimately, we decided to rent the property, in the process becoming novice landlords. Fortunately, we avoided much of the associated property letting stress, by meeting a couple interested in renting the property through my wife’s brother. We were able to invite them over to our home (as it still was at the time), have a friendly and relaxed conversation to get to know them. We were able to observe them to get a better sense of who they were and what they were about. They became our tenants.

Some months later the tenants requested permission for a small dog at the property. Previously my wife and I had agreed that logically we shouldn’t allow tenants to have pets at the property. It would simply increase the risk of damage and excessive wear and tear. But now, presented with this question from tenants we had met, we paused to consider our decision. Rather than being a faceless entity contributing income to our investment property, our tenants were a young couple who in many ways shared the lifestyle, hopes and dreams that my wife and I shared only a few years before. Put simply, we trusted them.

Ultimately we chose to allow the couple to have a pet. Yes, there is a mathematically increased risk that damage will occur. However, there is also an increased chance that the tenants will create a more permanent life and home in our house and stay on as good tenants, reducing the cost and headache of re-letting the property.

The key to changing our minds was that we had met and observed the couple. This allowed us to truly empathise with them in making our decision. We were able to truly share their feelings about why they wanted a dog, as we understood them and where they were coming from.

Product design is an almost infinitely complicated discipline, with many stakeholders, each with their own (often conflicting) requirements. In order to have the best chance of being successful, product design must start with empathy focused on the end user of the product (the oft underrepresented stakeholder in the design process). And empathy starts with getting off your backside, meeting and observing end users, and having meaningful dialogue with them about their needs.

In talking to and observing users there are risks that the products we design may differ from our original plans. But, there is a better chance the products we design will excite users and address unmet needs. Done thoroughly, we may even end up with a product solution that is truly socially responsible, in considering the feelings and needs of our planet and broader community – the ultimate stakeholders in any product lifecycle.

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