Design Thinking is Empathy

“Some people make objects. They are inventors. The rest of us are just regular people who make those objects better. That’s what Design Thinking is, really. It’s regular people improving products, services, things that aren’t great yet.”

Alright, okay. That’s the simple way to explain it. But is it really just about improving something? Some people will talk to you about the iconic 5 stages. Design thinking, then, is a process that can take the most unimaginative person and turn them into a creative genius.

This definition is already better, but it misses the central element of Design Thinking. And that is : Empathy. This is because Design Thinking is inspired by Human Centric Design at its core. This is partly what draws many of us to it: although widely used in business, Design Thinking brings back humanity as a focal point. It seeks to connect one human being to another, to really understand issues, pain points and opportunities at a deeper, human level.

How, then, were we going to teach empathy, that crucial, core element?

You guessed it, by having people do it.

Through a game.

Through the Wallet Game, to be exact.

Now, let’s be clear — by the time we ran this workshop, the Wallet Game had become this sort of a myth.

I’m ready to bet that if you’re starting out in the world of Design Thinking, the Wallet Game, or its variant, the Gift Giving Game, is like this magic rainbow you’ve seen all over the place — like on this blog post — but never got to touch. Yet.

Well, my friends, I have good news. It can be touched. You are about to touch it now. Because we will tell you that story to the first person. Closest thing to being there.

Here’s how doing the wallet game feels like.

And here’s why it’s such a big deal.

I get into the room.

I am handed a piece of paper with a simple instruction: Draw the ideal wallet.

Already, as the three minutes alarm buzzes, I stare at my half-baked ideas in frustration and start doubting the process for the very first time. This is the first encounter with constraints, a fundamental concept in DT.

I turn the page. “Interview your partner”. I am, I find out, setting out to draw his ideal wallet now. I just met the guy. Talk about a personal encounter!

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried interviewing someone in 8 minutes, but let me tell you 8 minutes is much shorter than you think. Somewhere halfway in, I suddenly realize the most insightful questions are not the ones about our wallets, but rather, about each other. So I completely veer the course of my questions:

  • If I asked your friends to use three words to describe you, what do you think they might be?
  • What does your typical day look like? If I drew your movement in space, what would it look like? What about in time?
  • Tell me the story of how you got this wallet. How did you feel about it then, and how do you feel about it now? When is the last time you actually gave thought to your wallet? Do you still notice it? In what moments?

After digging a little deeper, it’s time to gather insights.

This is where you make sense of what you just heard. I frame the wallet as solving a need for my partner: __________ needs a way to ________ because _______________ (or “but…” or “surprisingly…”).

Ideation. Prototyping. A little sense of déjà vue. At least, if you work with Agile at work.

The feedback comes, and I am stunned; although all my solutions answer the needs he expressed, not all of them are equally popular with my partner.

Then: the Frustration. The frustration as I watch the solutions he proposes to me, and silently wonder : “But why did you not ask me about purses and lipstick?”. And the lightbulb switches: He is not me. He is a man, I am a woman. How could he guess we secretly envy men’s thin wallets while we must keep a careful watch on our purses as we hit the dancefloor? The lightbulb, this time in reverse: what did I miss in his world, from my dead angle?

This is where I finally get it: Intellectual reasoning is this thing we keep using when we design software, services.

But intellectual reasoning is a feeble substitute to someone’s experience of the world— that is, empathy.


Akio Morita, from Sony, famously said : “We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. Instead we apply our brain power to what they need, and will want, and make sure we’re there, ready”.

The first portion of his statement cannot be argued with. As he proved when he invented the walkman, customers don’t always know what they want. But what he perhaps did not coin quite right — although I am sure he instinctively grasped it — was that it is not just a question of brain power. It’s a question of feeling what they feel when they use a product, a service. And to really get it, you have to live it first hand.

The beauty of the wallet game is that it is low pressure enough that one may actually focus on and take notice of the gap. Something that, under the pressure and business of everyday work, we may sometimes get out of touch with.

This is how you mindfully teach empathy.