Creative Empathy for Product Design

Last updated on 6 November 2022

Empathy helps us designers to serve people better. And Creative Empathy for product design gives us practical tools for our design process.

Why Human-Centered Design Calls for Empathy

Design strategist Teresa Brazen, from Adaptive Path and Cooper, understands that our best work comes from a place of empathy. As a designer, she says, you “make things for people. Those people aren’t you.”

Empathy can help us at every phase of the design process.

Indeed, many startups fail because they don’t have product-market fit. To design products that solve people’s problems and add value to their lives, designers need to understand how people make decisions.

So while it’s easy to believe that decision-making is completely rational, research shows that decisions originate largely in the subconscious. The challenge is that subconscious experience is “determined by tacit knowledge or latent needs and is often difficult to express in words.”

That’s why empathy can help us at every phase of the design process.

Co-Creation and Empathy

It’s important to note that Creative Empathy works best when we collaborate with the people whom we’re designing for. In order to minimize bias, we need to include as many different perspectives as possible in our design process.

This is especially true for the people who will be using, or may be affected by, our products. So while we can use most of the following techniques on our own, it’s best to involve real people when we can.

Practical Creative Empathy Techniques

My book, The Creative Empathy Field Guide, outlines techniques for applying empathy to creative projects. I’ve mapped some of these techniques to the Double Diamond innovation framework, which was created by the UK’s Design Council.

The UK Design Council's Double Diamond Design Process
The UK Design Council’s Double Diamond Design Process

While these techniques work for any design process, I’ve chosen the Double Diamond here, because it is used by millions of designers around the world.

Double Diamond Step 1: Discover

At the start of the design process, we use creative empathy techniques to understand people’s objectives, obstacles, and deepest motivations.

Empathic Interviewing

Empathic interviewing is slightly different from conventional interviewing, because we want to dig deeper and help people discuss their feelings, dreams, and fears. Here are some guidelines for conducting effective empathic interviews:

  • Decide your focus beforehand; know what you want to learn.
  • Center yourself before each interview. Box breathing is great for this.
  • Be mindful of the messages your body language might be sending. For example, our facial expressions or body posture could trigger social desirability bias in interviewees.
  • Embrace silence. It’s a powerful way to create space for interviewees to say more.
  • Pay more attention to the interviewee than your notes.
  • Follow your intuition around anomalies, outliers, or unique behavior. That’s often where we find the most interesting insights!
  • Most importantly: listen without judgement. Accept that the other person’s perspective is their truth.

One crucial note: empathic interviewing is different from reacting with empathy in a conversation. For example, if someone complains that a product feature is hard to use, it may be tempting to say, “That sounds awful” or “How annoying!” Instead, use the opportunity to validate the person’s feelings and ask for more information.

Field Research

Interviews are helpful, but they’re limited to what people can tell us. To overcome that, we can get out of the office and conduct field research.

Some time ago, I spoke with Hayley Ward, Director of User Research and Insight at Deliveroo, a food-delivery service that operates in several countries. She participated in a ‘become your customer’ exercise by working shifts picking up food from restaurants, rain or shine, and delivering it to customers’ doorsteps.

Photo of Hayley Ward, Director of User Research and Insight at Deliveroo, delivering food in the rain
Here’s Hayley, delivering food in the rain (photo used with Hayley’s permission)

“As a rider (delivery person), I was more focused on getting people’s orders right than on traffic or rain,” she said. “The passion I felt surprised me, and our riders feel that passion every day.”

“You can read all the decks you want, but nothing beats learning like getting out there yourself.”

Hayley Ward

While in-person interviews and field research are ideal, they’re not always possible because of budget limitations or distance. Fortunately, tools like Jitsi Meet allow people to share their screens and talk through tasks.

Double Diamond Step 2: Define

In this step of the design process, we synthesize what we’ve learned, so that the needs we discovered can drive our creative decisions.

Character Mapping

Most designers are familiar with personas: archetypes that illustrate a typical customer or user, based on qualitative and quantitative research findings. Personas often focus on the desired customer’s traits, such as gender, age, occupation, or income.

But I recommend creating characters instead. Characters serve the same purpose but go deeper, focusing on the internal factors relevant to their journey with your product. My Character Map Canvas visualizes these factors, including the character’s objective (what problem are they trying to solve?), obstacles (what’s holding them back?), and motivation (what’s at stake for them?).

Character Map Canvas, by The Greatness Studio- Farah Example
The Character Map Canvas helps us visualize people’s most relevant motivators for using our products.

A great way to develop empathy with a character is to freewrite as one of them. And while I use the Character Map Canvas on my own, it really comes to life in workshops with the rest of the team, even remotely with tools like Miro and FigJam.

Experience Flow Mapping

Once we have characters, we need to bring them to life. So we can use experience flow mapping to craft compelling stories, which promote empathy for our characters.

An experience flow is a type of journey map that focuses on a person’s experience before they encounter your solution. In other words, it’s a story of how your main character tries to achieve their objective, showing how they deal with the obstacles on their way. Here’s a guide on the basics of mapping the ‘as-is’ experience flow.

Using Simulators

The next best thing to being in someone’s actual situation is to simulate it. At the health technology company Philips, I worked on the Grooming app, which gives advice on shaving and styling facial hair. Research showed that our customers got their facial hair advice from barbers, so we invited a barber to shave our team members and offer grooming tips.

Photo of a barber shaving a software engineer, at our Philips Grooming hackathon
The barber giving a professional shave at our Philips Grooming hackathon

Experiencing the ritual helped us contextualize our work. The app even won a Red Dot design award and became one of the company’s most popular downloads.

But virtual, augmented, or mixed reality are other ways to create simulators. In 2015, the UN released a VR (virtual reality) film called Clouds over Sidra, showing a day in the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp. Screening the film at fundraisers has helped the UN exceed the funding target for their Humanitarian Pledging Conference by 65 percent.

Double Diamond Step 3: Develop

This is the part where we transition from exploring the problem to creating our solution. These Creative Empathy techniques help us better understand, and communicate to others, how people will experience our designs.

Journey Mapping

While an experience flow maps a person’s journey without our product, a journey map allows us to visualize their experience with it by breaking down the steps they take, and how they’re feeling, while interacting with the product.

Character Cards & Journey Map for Masters of Scale
A simplified journey map I made for Masters of Scale. The character cards on top each represent a segment of our audience.

It’s crucial to ground our journey maps in reality by informing them with our research. Working with false assumptions can bias our design work and prevent us from succeeding.

Prototyping

Prototyping marks an inflection point, because it’s often when stakeholders first see our product in action. Tools like Figma, Marvel, and Uizard are great for creating digital prototypes, because they’re easy to share remotely. But be careful: it’s easy to forget people and focus too much on pixels when creating a prototype.

Prototype animation for Fly with Valamar

One concrete way to infuse empathy into digital prototypes is to populate them with realistic copy and photos. This way, our prototype feels as close as possible to what the real product will feel like later.

UX Testing

There are many tools for UX testing, especially in today’s era of remote work. In moderated studies, we can use video conferencing tools to observe people while they interact with our product or prototype.

And when I conduct unmoderated studies, where I’m not present with the testers, I import my Figma prototype into Maze, a rapid-testing platform where I can give people test tasks.

Rolling research lets us conduct regular UX testing, often with the same participants, like a beta community. This is a great way to co-create with real people, and tools like Mattermost, Slack, or Discord make it relatively easy to do it remotely.

Using Sensitizers

Sensitizers are artifacts that help designers or other stakeholders connect emotionally with the characters they’re designing for.

At Philips, for example, I worked on a self-help app for people with depression. Every week, a researcher would read one real interview quote to the rest of the team. This simple empathy ritual gave us a new level of insight into our audience’s experiences. And it set a compassionate tone for our team.

Trigger Cards by María Elena López Reyes, for sensitizing designers and policy makers to the experience of surviving domestic abuse in Mexico City
Trigger Cards by María Elena López Reyes, for sensitizing people to the experience of surviving domestic abuse in Mexico City

Trigger cards are another kind of sensitizer. The ones shown here come from María Elena López Reyes, who made them as part of her graduation project on domestic violence in Mexico.

Double Diamond Step 4: Deliver

This is the final phase in the Double Diamond design process. Here, we converge our designs into a product we can use to test our assumptions and assess product-market fit.

Interaction Improv

A fun spin on prototyping is Stephen P. Anderson’s interaction improv. It’s a role-playing technique where one person portrays a human customer, and another portrays the product.

Interaction Improv - Switch

But ‘the product’ is only allowed to communicate as the actual product would. So, if there’s a power switch labeled ‘one’ and ‘zero,’ then those are the only words the actor may use to portray that switch. The idea is to reframe a human-product interaction as a human-human conversations.

This technique is effective in surfacing hidden communication gaps and making interactions feel more natural.

Dogfooding

Dogfooding refers to the practice of trying products yourself and using them the way a customer would. At Philips, one of our creative directors and his team hosted a weekly lunch, prepared using Philips kitchen appliances like blenders, soup makers, and air fryers. The ritual gave them the chance to experience the products firsthand and work out any kinks.

Hiring Your Customer

Another co-creative technique is hiring your customer. And Burton, the snowboarding and outdoor apparel company, does this in a number of ways.

Through its Performer Program, it offers discounts to snowboarders and other outdoor professionals in exchange for product feedback. It also has the Burton Team, a group of professional snowboarders who take Burton boards and gear around the world.

The company also hosts Rider Roundtables: an annual gathering of Burton’s co-founders, their product development teams, and pro riders, where they test new products, play with prototypes, and discuss the brand’s direction.

Telemetry and Analytics

Data-enabled design can yield valuable insights that offer additional entry points for empathy. In reviewing web analytics or app telemetry, we can uncover possible pain points or even unexpectedly popular areas of our product. Just remember: privacy is paramount when gathering data about people!

Infuse Empathy into Any Process

We’re all born with the capacity for empathy. And Creative Empathy for product design is process-agnostic.

No matter which creative process you follow, or which discipline you practice, these techniques can help you pinpoint people’s true needs and desires. That’s how we can design products that empower people in meaningful ways.