Empathy Design — 3 Steps to Create an Empathetic Design Solution

Nina Chen
Nina Chen
Sep 30, 2020 · 7 min read
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Empathy is an important element in Design Thinking and User-Centred Design. In IDEO’s Human-Centred Design Tool kit, Empathy Design is explained as “a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for.” At Tickit Health, we spend a good amount of resources to find the secret recipe to make our product digitally empathetic to its end users. After many cycles of research, design and test, I discovered the 3 steps to open the door of empathy design.

The core of empathetic design is putting users in the centre, find the appropriate solution for the task(s) people need to accomplish in the context. The 3 keywords of this sentence are the 3 steps of empathetic design.

  • Task — problem space: the problematic workflow, or steps of a workflow that the project aims to solve.
  • People & Context — physical and emotional state of users in the given environment.
  • Appropriate solution — a suitable solution that allows users to accomplish the task in a comfortable way.

Step 1: Task

Identifying the Task is fundamental to the success of a product as it gives a good overview of the key problem space and expected product behaviour. The identification process requires designers to listen to the users, be curious about their stories with the product, and translate user stories into product language.

The trigger of a design project usually starts from a need for the client or end-users. However, true needs usually stay unrevealed during initial communication. As a need arises, the user will start to find the solution he/she finds helpful. And approach to designers with questions like “Will you consider building xxx feature?” “I believe xxx feature will solve my challenge.” At this very moment, it is very important for designers to pull the trigger and ask about true needs. What challenge needs to be solved? Are there other paths to resolve it? Will other clients/users facing the same challenge? Where does the challenge fall in the overall product system? As a designer, we need to train ourselves to exam the question and ask to follow up questions until we see a clear picture.

As the questions bubble up, we will work with users and guide them to speak about their experience and challenge. There are a lot of ways to help clients/users talk about their experience with the product. Depends on the client and your relationship, the conversation may vary. I will share my thinking process of how I shape the conversation to get valuable information.

  1. Start with acknowledgement. User feedback is always valuable. They could move to a different product, but they are here, take the time to share about their experience, we need to acknowledge that this action is highly appreciated and encourage them to continue to do so.
  2. Ask about general workflow before diving into specific challenges. This is a highly beneficial step for designers to understand how the product is being used in real life; to know about who is using it, for what purpose, the frequency and if there are any other tools they use around the product. Also, it helps clients/users to start thinking about their interaction experience, and zoom into each of the small steps they do. While the workflow is being revealed, you can pay attention to potential gaps on the way. It might be the root cause of the challenge the client is experiencing later in the process.
  3. Now, our mind is warmed up and ready to do intense brainstorming activities. Let’s zoom into the challenge and the proposed solution. Allow clients to share their thoughts. Make them feel they are contributing to the conversation. Ask follow-up questions as clients talk about the challenge or their findings. Engage them to dig into the root problem with you.
  4. End with questions instead of solutions. The product is serving all its users. When one user identified a challenge, other users are probably facing similar challenges. Therefore, designers need to continue interviewing other users before jumping into a solution.

There are a lot of frameworks and ways to collaborate with current and future users/clients to improve the product. The ultimate goal here is to identify the root problem that causes problems in the task that users need to complete.

User & Context

The process of digging for the true challenge doesn’t end after the initial identification of the task. It continues with understanding the people with the given context. Our capability and expectation vary base on who we are and our physical and emotional status. Experienced and confident users usually handle challenges better than stressed users; less busy ones are more likely to wait for the page to load than the busy ones. The various capability and expectation deserve their own design setup to achieve the goal of empathetic product design. Therefore, design with a good understanding of users' physical and emotional context will largely improve the satisfaction rate of users.

User study

User study is a discovering and learning process about the target user group of a product. I like to call it user study instead of user research, as I find the term “study” is more of an equal power setup between users and designers, and it better conveys the principle of collaboration and co-creation. As resource allows, my favourite method is field study, where designers can learn about workflows, inefficiencies, and the organizational and physical environments of users. Field study literally put me into the exact same context as the users. It allows me to use all my senses to observe, listen, hear, smell and move like a real user to get 1st handed information about how the product is/will be used. It helps to clarify assumptions and questions with clear answers. And it allows designers to observe and identify the hidden gaps of the product. For example, in a field study we did in school, we found out that counsellors are spending more than an hour triaging the students with paper and excel sheets after a group screening. We observed the gap in our product, and we see the need for a quick triage tool. The need is then brought back to the team with the goal of supporting counsellors to triage efficiently in our product with maximum accuracy and minimum clicks.

Exam your time and budget to pick the most suitable methodology to learn about your users. It doesn’t need to be fancy at all. The target outcomes are:

  1. Know who we are serving. As part of user study, designers need to understand users’ technical capability; their goals and expectation of the product, and their responsibilities.
  2. Identify the physical space. Physical space determines the mental capability users have to perform the tasks with your product. If a user is constantly exposed to a large amount of information, and need to make instant decisions, they won’t have much mental capacity to concentrate. Therefore, they will expect the product to work for them with minimum effort.
  3. Identify users’ emotional states throughout their interaction experience with the product. As state above, one’s emotional state can largely affect a person’s productivity and experience. By identifying the potential emotions and its causes, we can modify the design accordingly to support users to accomplish their tasks in an effective and efficient manner. If users are busy, the product can be modified with smart defaults to save up the number of clicks and thinking energy for users. If users feel confident for complex tasks, allow advanced options for users to get better custom control of the product.

Appropriate design

Empathetic design aims to serve its users. It puts users in the centre so they feel comfortable, confident and being respected. Therefore, we are not aiming for cutting-edge technology nor visual effect. Instead, we are seeking an appropriate design solution that serves and supports the needs of users. A good rule of thumb to achieve appropriate design is aiming for calmness before excitement. As calmness allows users to focus on completing the task in an effective manner, and then, bring in excitement to cheer for their accomplishment. Here are more check items that guide to an appropriate design choice.

  1. Practice UX design principles. UX principles are good design guides to ensure a solid foundation and prevent unnecessary errors. They focus directly and solely on users and their experience, which enforces empathy design practices. There are a lot more can be found online, and here are a few that I found super helpful.
    a. Follow the standard: Users spend most of their time interacting with other websites, apps. This means users would prefer your site to work just like the other site they already know.
    b. Speak users’ language: Describe things in a language users know will make everything a lot easier to understand. Design affordance, workflow, and interactive behaviour in language users are familiar with will save a lot of learning/training time.
    c. Miller’s law: A person on average keeps 7 (+/- 2) items in their working memory. So never make users remember things.
  2. Design for short attention spans: There are a lot of out of control interruptions. So getting users what they need as fast as possible.
  3. Design for need. Focus design on the true needs of your users. Keep in mind that users don’t interact with technologies as much as product designers do. Any small new feature is another thing they need to learn. Nobody is willing to read the manual, watch the onboarding videos to learn a tool step by step. Instead, users are looking for a tool they can easily pick up, and do their work. Therefore, keep the product simple by designing for the core need of users.
  4. Incremental design. Users often shy away from complex products or features. When introducing new features, feed it to users step by step. Starts with the core component of the feature. After users learn and master the existing feature, introduce the next component.
  5. Design for a purpose. In a product, especially the ones that aim for productivity or designed for office settings, visual elements (icons and graphics) need to serve a purpose. Visual design can be used for page hierarchy; to highlight the newly released feature; to communicate a success action; to hint function and purpose, but avoid using them solely for prettiness.


Empathy design is all about users. It is a study of people. Put aside personal preference, understand user’s physical and mental capability and their desires in the given environment is the key to a successful empathetically designed product. And lastly, product design is designing tools for its user, don’t let new technology drive the design, nor limit its potential with pre-established frameworks.

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