Design & Empathy

Design is getting a lot of attention lately and design strategy is one application of a greater movement known as design thinking. To provide an accurate definition I'll quote Tim Brown of IDEO.

"Design Thinking is a discipline that uses the designers sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity." 

More business leaders and educators are recognizing the necessity to utilize design as transformational force within organizations. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management has written a book all about infusing design into business titled "The Design of Business".  Educational institutions such as  California College of the Arts and the Rotman School of Management are incorporating design education into their MBA programs.

What makes design a transformational force you ask?

The methods, techniques and skills involved in design tackle problems from a different perspective than say engineering or business.  As a broad generalization in business you ask questions like; are we building the "right" thing (i.e. will there be a market for this product)? In engineering you ask are we building the thing "right" (i.e. will the product live up to the rigors of use)?  Design asks questions like:

  • what do people do?
  • what do they struggle with?
  • what do people want to do?
  • what do they care about?
  • what do they value and why?

Getting to the heart of these questions and designing great products to satisfy people requires empathy.  

What is empathy?  From wikipedia: "Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another being."  Empathy is absent from both the business and engineering as disciplines because they are both inwardly focused to address their own problems.  Design is outward facing by necessity.  Empathy allows a connection to form between another and ourselves; design requires it.  The tools of design are geared toward empathy.  

Tools of design fall into a few categories: Tools of Observation, Tools of Listening and Tools of Thinking. 

Tools of Observation

Tools of observation require that you locate people who could benefit from your product and observe their behavior.

  • What do they do? 
  • What difficulties are they having?
  • What causes the difficulties?

Observation need not be in the physical sense a lot can be gleaned from observing actions online.  Cloud based software and social media allows for behavior to be observed remotely and pooled with the behaviors of other users. This field of analysis is emerging as a powerful observational tool. Observation helps a you to understand people by what they do.  Knowing peoples behavior, given a stimulus, helps to better understand them.

Tools of Listening

To listen requires that you engage with people in active conversation. Get people talking.  What do they want? What do they do now?  Why do they do behavior X (observed)? What do they struggle with? What do they think might help?  Excellent questions can be gleaned from the the earlier round of observational studies. 

Tools of Thinking

Tools of thinking allow you to extract meaning and patterns from what was observed and heard earlier.  Concepts and prototypes articulate those ideas into a tangible medium for discussion and feedback.  Concepts and prototypes can also be tested to evaluate whether ideas address the struggles of people.

Effective design creates what's known as a feedback loop. Observation leads to effective questions for listening.   The tools of thinking help interpret observation and listening into tangible concepts that can be used for further observation and listening. Making each round of design more precise towards a product people value.

So what makes design so transformational? The questions being asked in design are the crux of product success.  Developing empathy means a team cares about its users and will not want let them down. Empathy generated through design means a team can feel when their solution is on right track.  It is not to say the questions of business and engineering are ignored when delivering products, it is just that those questions only need to be answered once a solid vision of what provides value to people is discovered.  I'll leave the integration of business, engineering and design for yet another post.