Stage 1 in the Design Thinking Process: Empathise with Your Users

Stage 1 in the Design Thinking Process: Empathise with Your Users

by Rikke Dam and Teo Siang | | 7 min read

Design Thinking cannot begin without a deeper understanding of the people you are designing for. To gain those insights, it is important for design thinkers to empathise with the people they’re designing for to understand their needs, thoughts, emotions and motivations. The good news is that there are a wide range of methods you can use in order to learn more about people. Even better news: with enough mindfulness and experience, anyone can become masters at empathising with people.

"Engaging with people directly reveals a tremendous amount about the way they think and the values they hold. Sometimes these thoughts and values are not obvious to the people who hold them. A deep engagement can surprise both the designer and the designee by the unanticipated insights that are different from what they actually do - are strong indicators of their deeply held beliefs about the way the world is."
– d. School Bootcamp Bootleg, 2013

Developing Empathy towards People

The first stage (or mode) of the’s Design Thinking process involves developing a sense of empathy towards the people you are designing for, to gain insights into what they need, what they want, how they behave, feel, and think, and why they demonstrate such behaviours, feelings, and thoughts when interacting with products in a real-world setting.

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The five stages are not always sequential — they do not have to follow any specific order and they can often occur in parallel and be repeated iteratively. As such, the stages should be understood as different modes that contribute to a project, rather than sequential steps.

To gain empathy towards people, design thinkers often observe them in their natural environment passively, or engage with them in interviews. Also, design thinkers should try to imagine themselves in the people’s environment, or stepping into their shoes as the saying goes, in order to gain a deeper understanding of users’ situations. The following are some methods from Bootcamp Bootleg that will allow you to gain empathy towards your users.

Assuming a Beginner’s Mindset

Author/Copyright holder: Justin Peterson. Copyright terms and licence: CC0 1.0

To empathise with users, designers should try to always adopt the mindset of a beginner. What this means is that designers (or design thinkers) should always try to leave their own assumptions and experiences behind when making observations. Our life experiences create assumptions within us, which we use to explain and make sense of the world around us. However, this very process affects our ability to truly empathise with the people we observe. Since it is impossible to completely let go of our assumptions, we should constantly and consciously remind ourselves to assume a beginner’s mindset. It’s useful to always remind yourself to not judge what you observe, to question everything, even if you think you know the answer, and to really listen to what others are saying.

Ask What? How? Why?

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

By asking the three questions — What? How? Why? — we are able to move from concrete observations that are free from assumptions to more abstract motivations driving the actions we have observed. During our observations, for instance, it might be helpful to separately record the “Whats”, “Hows” and “Whys” of a person’s single observation.

In “What”, we record the details (not assumptions) of what has happened. In “How”, we analyse how the person is doing what they are doing (is the person exerting a lot of effort? Does the person have a smile or a frown on their face?). Finally, in “Why”, we make educated guesses as related to the person’s motivations and emotions. These motivations can then be tested with users.

Photo and Video User-based Studies

Photographing or recording target users, like other empathising methods, can help you uncover needs that people have which they may or may not be aware of. It can help guide your innovation efforts, identify the right end users to design for, and discover emotions that guide behaviours.

In user camera-based studies, users are photographed or filmed either: (a) in a natural setting; or (b) during sessions with the design team or consultants you’ve hired to gather information. For example, you might identify a group of people that possess certain characteristics that are representative of your target audience. You record them while they’re experiencing the problem you’re aiming to solve. You can refresh your memory at a later time with things people said, feelings that were evoked, and behaviours that were identified. You can then easily share this with the rest of your team.

Author/Copyright holder: chiesADIbeinasco. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

Personal photo and video recordings made by the target group themselves provide designers with the opportunity to empathise with the users’ personal experiences, while not disturbing the user with their own presence.

Personal Photo and Video Journals

In this method, you hand over the camera to your users and give them instructions, to take pictures of, or to video record their activities during a specified period of time. The advantage is that you don’t interfere or disturb the user with your personal presence, even though they will adapt and change their normal behaviour slightly as they know that you’ll watch the video or photo journal later. In a similar way to using personas, by engaging real people, designers gain invaluable personal experiences and stories that keep the human aspect of design firmly in mind throughout the whole process.

At IDEO they… “use this method to go beyond an in-person Interview to better understand a person’s context, the people who surround them, community dynamics, and the journey through how they use a product or service. Photojournals can help create a foundation for richer discussion as they prime an individual before an interview which means they start thinking about the subject a few days in advance.” – IDEO,, Photojournal


Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

One-on-one interviews can be a productive way to connect with real people and gain insights. Talking directly to the people you’re designing for may be the best way to understand needs, hopes, desires, and goals. The benefits are similar to video and camera-based studies, but interviews are generally structured and the interviewer will typically have a set of questions they wish to ask the interviewee. Interviews, therefore, offer the personal intimacy and directness of other observation methods, while allowing the design team to target specific areas of information to direct the Design Thinking process.

Most of the work happens before the interviews: team members will brainstorm to generate questions to ask users and create themes or topics around the interview questions so they can flow smoothly from one to another.

Engaging with Extreme Users

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

By focusing on the extremes, the problems, needs, and methods of solving problems are magnified. First, you must identify the extremes of your potential user base, then you should engage with this group to establish their feelings, thoughts and behaviours, and then look at the needs you might find in all users. It is important to note that the purpose of engaging with extreme users is not to develop solutions for extreme users, but to sieve out problems that mainstream users might have problems voicing out; however, in many cases, the needs of extreme users tend to overlap with the needs of the majority of the population.

Analogous Empathy

Using analogies can help the design team to develop new insights. By comparing one domain with another, different solutions can be conjured that would not necessarily come to mind when working within the constraints of one discipline. For example, the highly stressful and time-sensitive procedure of operating on a patient in the emergency room of a hospital might be analogous to the process of refueling and replacing the tires of a race car in a pit stop. Some of the methods one might use during analogous empathy include comparing your problem and another in a different field, creating an 'inspiration board' with notes and pictures, and focusing on similar aspects between multiple areas.

Sharing Inspiring Stories

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Each person in a design team will collect different pieces of information, have different thoughts, and come up with different solutions. For this reason, you should share your inspiring stories to collect all of the team members’ research, from field studies, interviews, etc. By sharing the stories that each member has observed, the team can get up to speed on progress, draw out meaning from the stories, and capture interesting details of the observation work.


Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Bodystorming is the act of physically experiencing a situation in order to truly immerse oneself in the users’ environment. This requires a considerable amount of planning and effort, as the environment must be filled with the artefacts present in the real world environment, and the general atmosphere/feel must accurately depict the users’ setting. Bodystorming puts the team in the users’ shoes, which will increase the designers’ feelings of empathy and help them generate the most fitting solutions.

The Take Away

There are various methods available to the Design Thinking team to enable them to empathise with users. Collectively, these methods offer us insight into the users’ needs, and how they think, feel, and behave. Each method attempts to enhance the design team's understanding of their target user and market, and to appreciate exactly what users need and want from their product(s). Observation methods will not only enable us to gather raw data, statistics, and demographics, but will also offer opportunities for us to draw insights that can be used in designing a solution. Empathising with users is an essential component of the Design Thinking process; to ignore the benefits of learning from others is to forget what Design Thinking is truly about.

References & Where to Learn More Bootcamp Bootleg, 2013:

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Ashton Bingham. Copyright terms and licence: CC0

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