The Pursuit of Empathy in the Design Process

Let’s get real for a moment.

We’re all aware by now that empathy is a hot topic in the design and technology world. VR, periscope, emojis, gifs, etc are technologies attempting to improve the human experience in a fundamental way: by allowing people to see and be seen emotionally by the world around them. Despite all the noise around this topic, it’s not always clear whether, as a community, we share a common understanding of its origins and how we might practice it. A fellow collaborator and developer, Nick Cox, recently wrote about the origins of empathy, focusing on how recent neuroscience discoveries have shown that empathy is a real and tangible muscle in the brain, one that gets stronger the more it is exercised. But what does it mean to exercise our empathetic muscle? And if we exercised this muscle, might it actually bring lasting change in our work and in our teams?

1. Empathy is a Choice

Before we can begin to exercise empathy, we must first overcome the fundamental attribution error. In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error is defined as the propensity to overvalue internal characteristics–such as someone’s personality–and undervalue the external characteristics–such as their situation. We often explain someone else’s behavior by judging the type of person they are, not the circumstances they were in. But what if most behavior is circumstantial? What if people do what they do because of the situation they are in?

We’re living in a world where we are making experiences for real people with real scenarios and real uncertainties. Letting go of our own assumptions is a crucial part of this process. This is where practicing empathy becomes a choice we must make–a responsibility we must own.

2. Empathy Extends Beyond the User

As designers, we talk a lot about how to practice empathy for the people we are designing for. But what about the people we are designing with?

Let’s think about potential groups of people who are a part of the design process: our stakeholders or clients, our users, and our colleagues (project managers, engineers, researchers, content strategists, etc.) Exercising the empathetic muscle is very similar to the discovery and research phase of the design process.

Stakeholders or Clients: Detect their energy and situation

  1. As part of the discovery phase of the design process, researchers and designers often synthesize their research by creating user stories to identify the goals, tasks, and mental models that users might have as they experience a product. What if we applied that same ‘user story’ thinking for our stakeholders or clients? What do they value? What are their goals? What is it like from their perspective?
  2. Observe their tribe. Who do they work with and what are their relationships to each other?
  3. Observe their environment. What sort of business culture are they living in? Do they fit into that culture or are they hiring you to help them change it?
  4. Positive & Negative Vibes. What moments in their job gives them energy? When do they express positive emotions? What moments in their job depletes their energy? When do they express anxious or stressed emotions?
  5. Expectations. Be persistent about detecting expectations. How do your stakeholders define success? Are there assumptions that you might be making about what their expectations are? Do they understand your expectations?
At its core, empathy is curiosity. And by seeking to understand our client’s energy and situation, empathy can transform short-term transactions into long-term relationships.

Users: Respect their energy and situation

If people are actually going to take energy out of their day to focus on using your product or experience, respect that.

  1. The creation of personas are often practiced in the design process as a way of identifying your audience. But in order to truly pursue empathy, we must go beyond learning who they are and immerse ourselves in where they are. What type of external forces or situations are they in as they use your product? What stresses do they have by being in this environment? Are they pressed for time? Are they hungry? Are they uncertain about a decision? Get to know their situation, not just their identity.
  2. Observe their tribe. What interactions do users have with each other when they use your product? How do their interactions effect their perceptions and goals?
  3. Distractions & Direction. Where are they currently directing their energy? Where do they want to direct their energy? What mistakes are happening when they use this experience?
  4. Make it personal and clear. How might we use tone of voice and language to make them feel that this experience is just for them? Is the language contextual? Does it flow well with this particular aspect of experience? Does this language make sense to their cultural background?
  5. Consider usage lifecycles. Are they just beginning to use your product? Coming back to it? Consider their situation by focusing on what their circumstances are while they are living in that particular part of the lifecycle.
By focusing on usage lifecycles, we can get a better understanding of a user’s present situation to help them move on to the next stage. Empathy becomes our compass, guiding and informing our design and technology decisions.

Colleagues: Optimize their energy and situation

  1. Ask: What can I do that will most help my team be successful? Define a user story for your colleagues. How might you help a developer build a successful product by thinking through a design in a complete way, considering edge cases? How might you help a project manager feel reassured that a plan is being executed? How might you help a researcher feel confirmed that their research is being validated in your design solutions? Articulating Design Decisions by Tom Greever is a great resource on this topic.
  2. Optimize their time and energy. How can you help them focus on the things that evoke their energy and passion? How can you help them optimize the things that deplete their energy?
  3. Get outside of work mode and get to know them. As an introvert myself, I typically cringe at this idea, but then I realize that it is so worth it in the end. Take them to lunch. Buy them a coffee. What is this person’s background / experience / gender / race, etc? How might this influence their perspective or energy?
  4. Observe your teams’ interactions. What interactions do we have with each other? What interactions could we have that we don’t currently have? Just like a prototype, what communication ideas can we test out to better understand each other?
  5. Are they stressed? Could this be blinding their empathy? Are you stressed? Could this be blinding your empathy?
The pursuit of empathy is the pursuit of trust. It’s no secret that a successful product is shaped by a team that trusts one another.

3. Shared Rituals = Shared Understanding

While being in an empathetic mindset certainly helps, there are some practical rituals that can help sustain empathy. It begins with a shared understanding among your teams, and to create a shared understanding, we must participate in shared rituals with everyone involved. A shared ritual is a small behavior that is practiced together frequently, over time.

Here are some possible rituals to test out with your teams:

  1. Intros: Before a meeting begins, practice stating a one sentence check-in, answered with two words.

“X happened and I feel Y.”

The ritual of an intro might sound frivolous in the context of a work environment, but when practiced correctly, it allows you to be more present with your team for the rest of the meeting. It’s a moment of recognition that our brains are often distracted when we enter a meeting, and this ritual resets our focus. In return, your team has more contextual awareness, or dare I say, empathy, for your situation.

2. Retros: Project & team check-ins at the end of the week:

  • How did we do on our commitments from last week?
  • What went well and not so well this week?
  • What will we commit to changing next week? Brainstorm tactical suggestions.
  • What if we tried something different? Brainstorm tactical experiments.
  • Keep track of each retro meeting and observe how your team evolves over time.

3. Critiques: Let’s reaffirm our intentions.

Critique is a hell of a ritual, but it is only useful when it is practiced early and often, with all team members (not just designers). Not only can critiques make our work better, but it can make our empathetic muscle stronger. Critiques reaffirm our intentions as a team. It’s a crazy world out there–goals change, deadlines get brutal, and shit breaks. Critiques bring us back to home base, reminding us of the intentions that we created from the very beginning.


Strengthening the empathetic muscle in our brain not only influences our method of conceptualization and development, but the whole relationship and experience between our stakeholders, users, and colleagues. Empathy can serve as a form of data collection–guiding and informing our design, technology, and business decisions.

Yet more importantly, the pursuit of empathy builds a foundation for trust and understanding–all of which is necessary in this ever-evolving, crazy world.

How will you choose to pursue empathy?