Empathic design is a user-centered design approach that pays particular attention to the feelings and emotions that the user feels towards a product.
The founders of empathic design, including leading academics and consulting firms such as IDEO and SonicRim, have successfully explored empathic design in projects for and with industry clients (Black, 1998; Sanders, 2001). Tim Brown, chair of IDEO, describes design empathy as a mindset, but also as a fundamental cultural value that allows designers to develop innovative concepts, products, services, strategies and systems that respond to real needs and concrete wishes of users.
In recent years, the empathic design has evolved rapidly in response to the notion of design for the user experience which is reflected in 4 principles underlying the empathic approach to design (Postma, Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, Daemen & Du, 2012):
1) balancing rationality and emotions in building an understanding of user experiences to help researchers and designers “understand those human traits that are responsible for people’s liking, use and desire to live with the products they design” (Dandavate et al., 1996, p. 415). In empathic design, this balance is achieved by combining observations of what people do with interpretations of what people think, feel and dream (Dandavate et al., 1996; Fulton Suri, 2003a).
2) Need to make empathic inferences about users and their possible future.
In empathic design, it is believed that people’s feelings and experiences are better understood through empathy (Dandavate et al., 1996; Segal & Fulton Suri, 1997). Empathic design refers to the empathic abilities of designers and researchers in interpreting what people think, feel and dream and in imagining possible future situations of product use (Black, 1998; Fulton Suri, 2003a; Steen, 2008).
3) Involving users as partners in developing the new product and building an understanding of these experiences they are experts in. (McDonagh, 2008; Wright & McCarthy, 2008).
4) Involving members of the design team as multidisciplinary experts in performing user research. The empathic design suggests that researchers and designers join forces in designing and conducting user research to ensure that the user’s perspective is included in the development of the new product (Black, 1998).
The four principles are not exclusively related to empathic design. There are several design research approaches, such as participatory design and critical design, which share one or more of these principles. Sanders’ (2008) topography of user research in design is helpful in explaining how we see empathic design adapting to the discipline of design research. The map has two dimensions along which different design research approaches are positioned (Fig. 1).
The vertical dimension of Sanders’ topography distinguishes between research-driven and design-driven approaches. Research-driven approaches mainly focus on building an understanding of users and their present and past situations.
Empathic design is best suited to design-led approaches. Design-based approaches typically focus on transforming and understanding user experiences.
The horizontal dimension of Sanders’ topography describes the mindset of the people who practice and teach design research approaches. It distinguishes between approaches that involve an expert mindset and approaches that require a participatory mindset. In approaches involving an expert mindset, the researcher is seen as an expert and the user as a subject. This group of approaches focuses on designing for users.
In approaches that require a participatory mindset, the user is seen as a partner who actively participates in the new product development process. This group of approaches focuses on designing with users.
Fig. 1 | Topography of design research (Sanders, 2008).
Empathic design, which also seeks to engage users (principle 3), is equally based on the personal intuition and creativity of designers in imagining possible future situations (principle 2), and therefore can be positioned between the two groups of approaches and overlaps with the area that Sanders calls “design and emotion”.
Fig. 2 | Design and emotions’ categories according to Fulton Suri (2003).
Fulton Suri (2003a) distinguishes three categories (Fig.3):
1) observe what people do in their own context through observation techniques (Stanton, Young, Harvey, 2014).
2) ask people to participate by reflecting on their personal experiences and expressing their thoughts, feelings and desires through methods and techniques such as context mapping (Sleeswijk Visser, Stappers, Van der Lugt, & Sanders, 2005), design probes (Mattelmäki, 2005).
3) try things out for yourself and learn other people’s experiences by approximating their experiences. This class of methods and techniques includes the experience prototyping (Buchenau & Fulton Suri, 2000), role play (Boess, Saakes and Hummels, 2007), empathic trial (Thomas, McDonagh, Strickfaden, 2012).
- Black, A. (1998). Empathic design: User focused strategies for innovation. In Proceedings of the Conference on New Product Development (pp. 1-8). London, UK: IBC.
- Boess, S., Saakes, D., & Hummels, C. (2007). When is role playing really experiential? Case studies. In B. Ullmer, A. Schmidt, E. Hornecker, C. Hummels, R. Jacob, & E. Van der Hoven (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction (pp. 279- 282). New York, NY: ACM Press.
- Buchenau, M., & Fulton Suri, J. (2000). Experience prototyping. In D. Boyarski & W. A. Kellogg (Eds.), Proceedings of the 3rd Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 424-433). New York, NY: ACM Press.
- Dandavate, U., Sanders, E. B. -N., & Stuart, S. (1996). Emotions matter: User empathy in the product development process. In Proceedings of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (pp.415-418). Santa Monica, CA: HFES.
- Fulton Suri, J. (2003a). Empathic design: Informed and inspired by other people’s experience. In I. Koskinen, K. Battarbee, & T. Mattelmäki (Eds.), Empathic design: User experience in product design (pp. 51-58). Helsinki, Finland: Edita IT Press.
- Mattelmäki, T. (2005). Applying probes: From inspirational notes to collaborative insights. CoDesign, 1(2), 83-102.
- McDonagh, D. (2008). Do it until it hurts! Empathic design research. Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, 2(3), 103-110.
- Postma, C. E., Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, E., Daemen, E., & Du, J. (2012). Challenges of doing empathic design: Experiences from industry. International journal of design, 6(1).
- Sanders, L. (2001). Collective creativity. Loop: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education, 3. Retrieved March 6, 2010, from http://loop1.aiga.org
- Sanders, E. B.-N. (2008). On modeling: An evolving map of design practice. Interactions, 15(6), 13-17.
- Segal, L. D., & Fulton Suri, J. (1997). The empathic practitioner: Measurement and interpretation of user experience. In Proceedings of the 41st Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (pp.451-454). Santa Monica, CA: HFES.
- Sleeswijk Visser, F., Stappers, P. J., van der Lugt, R., & Sanders, E. B. -N. (2005). Contextmapping: Experiences from practice. CoDesign, 1(2), 119-149.
- Stanton, N. A., Young, M. S., & Harvey, C. (2014). Guide to methodology in ergonomics: Designing for human use. CRC Press.
- Steen, M. (2008). The fragility of human-centered design. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands.
- Thomas, J., McDonagh, D., & Strickfaden, M. (2012). Empathic education in design: Strategies for healthcare practitioners?. Australasian Medical Journal, 5(5), 292-300.
- Wright, P., & McCarthy, J. (2008). Empathy and experience in HCI. In M. Czerwinski, A. Lund, & D. Tan (Eds.), Proceedings of the 26th SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 637-646). New York, NY: ACM Press.
Author of the lesson
Ester Iacono – Master’s Degree in Design at the School of Architecture at the University of Florence. Scholarship for PhD in Architecture, majoring in design (Cycle XXXIII). Researcher in the fields of ergonomics for Design, Human-Centred Design, and Medical Design at Laboratory of Ergonomics & Design, Architecture Department (DIDA). Tutor at Laboratory of Ergonomics for Design course of “Ergonomics and Design” and “Human-Centred Design/User Experience”. She is a lecturer of Interaction Design at AAP (Arts Abroad Project) at the Overseas Study Center in Florence Teaching Program. She collaborated as a designer with professional studios of product design, graphics and communication design.