Empathetic Product Design


Empathy is the first stage of user experience designers. In this stage, a designer's goal is to gain an empathetic understanding of a user's problem. This includes immersing yourself in their environment to have a deeper understanding their experiences, motivations, as well as their issues, needs and challenges. By stepping into the shoes of the user, product designers can set aside their own assumptions and opinions in order to solve the problem at hand.


Why Empathy?


Mass consumerism has become a central part of how the world operates. During the industrial revolution, factories were invented and the one-size-fits-all approach was the driving factor for mass production. Unfortunately, this mindset has also lead to inaccuracy and waste generation.


In the past decade, over-consumption has transformed global warming from an increasing problem to an immediate crisis which threatens the way we live and the world our children and grandchildren will know to be home. Empathetic design thinking, creating a product that properly solves a user's problem, moves away from the one-size-fits-all mindset, and works to fulfil to specific requirements instead.


From a business profit-driven point of view, empathy is essential to any sound business solution. If we create solutions in isolation, without information about the user, we might design a product that does not have a sense of desirability and there be ignored by the market. Empathy is crucial for designers because it allows us to uncover the needs and emotions of people we are designing for. As a result, we can design solutions that meet the three requirements for a successful product: desirability, feasibility and viability.


What kind of empathy?


Empathy is a human quality, which allows you to respond to others' emotions and motivations. There are three types of empathy:


  1. Reflective empathy


Reflective empathy allows you to respond to others' emotions and motivations. It is the ability to take another person's perspective in order to understand what they're feeling. Understanding emotional cues could include facial expression, spoken thoughts or behaviour such as laughing or crying.


  1. Emotional empathy


Emotional empathy allows you to know and act on what others feel. It consists of three separate components: feeling the same emotion as another person, personal distress and feeling compassion for another person.


  1. Cognitive empathy


Cognitive empathy is the ability to take the perspective of someone else and imagine their experience accurately. It involves having a more complete and accurate knowledge about another persons mind, including their feelings. Humans learn how to recognize and understand others as a way to process emotions and behaviour.


Whilst all three types of empathy are useful, cognitive empathy needs to be mastered in order to understand what your user needs. This means having the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. In order to master the skill of cognitive empathy, you should do the following:


  • Be patient. It's easy to go gung-ho on designing a product, especially when you're inspired. But patience is a virtue. Take the time to properly understand your user's needs.
  • Observe users in their natural environment. While questionnaires are useful, getting to know your user's requirements in their natural habit is the most effective. Fortunately with available data, you can do this with ease.
  • Set aside your own ideas and requirements so you can understand what your users are doing and how they are achieving their goals. By letting go of your own initial beliefs, you will be able to focus on your user.
  • Focus on research. It's easy to jump to conclusion when conducting research. Instead, be empathetic and listen only during research. Come to your conclusions at the end.


Immersing yourself in the user's environment is an essential stage of the design process for any given product. It gives us the ability to not only understand our target market, but to fill a gap in the market. By knowing exactly what our customer desires, we can also realise how a customer's environment impacts the way they see and interact with the world around them.