Empathize

Your constantly-updated definition of Empathize and collection of videos and articles
551 shares

What is Empathize?

Empathize is the first stage of the design thinking process. Design teams conduct research to get personal grasps of their users’ needs. They set aside assumptions to obtain insights into the users’ world by observing and consulting with users. This way, they can understand users’ experiences, motivations and problems.

“If you want to build a product that’s relevant to people, you need to put yourself in their shoes.”

— Jack Dorsey, Programmer, entrepreneur, co-founder of Twitter & founder of Square

See how to empathize with users to gather a wealth of insights and fuel your design process.

Empathize with Real People – Leave Your Assumptions Outside

Empathize is design thinking’s first stage for a reason. It’s the first step on the road to thoughtfully designed products that prove the designers built with a compassionate eye for their users. Empathy is a naturally occurring characteristic which people have in varying degrees. However, they can improve their ability to empathize as a soft skill. Anyone in a design team will have preconceived ideas about the many situations people find themselves in as users. It’s unavoidable – you can’t unlearn your life experience. Therefore, you should always adopt a beginner’s mindset to be able to view and analyze situations with users objectively.

A graph showing 5 stages of design thinking and how non-linear they can be

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Empathize is the first stage in the design thinking process.

To empathize is to research. So, you should constantly remind yourself to question everything you observe instead of judging. You should also listen to others open-mindedly rather than focus on points that confirm your biases. Because our biases will naturally creep into how we view the world and the situations we consider, as designers—or design thinkers—we must catch and overcome these before they distort our research. You must become fully objective before you can start to see through your users’ eyes and interpret their viewpoints optimally. They are the experts. You must understand the users’ dimensions of use (e.g., tasks) and their feelings (e.g., motivations) before you can work towards delighting them through your design.

A graph showing what empathy is

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

When you empathize you try to understand you users’ perspective.

How to Empathize to Get the Right Insights

You have a range of options, including:

  1. Observing real users. Ask these questions to shift from concrete observations to abstract motivations:

    1. “What?” – You detail your observations.

    2. “How?” – You analyze how users do things (e.g., with difficulty).

    3. “Why?” – You make educated guesses about the users’ emotions and motivations.

  2. Conducting photo- and/or video-based studies in users’ natural environments or sessions with the design team or consultants – You record these users while they try to solve an issue you propose to resolve with your design.

  3. Personal photo/video journals – You ask users to record their own experiences with approaching a problem. These may capture their pain points more accurately.

  4. Interviewing users – Your team uses brainstorming to first find the right questions to ask in a generally structured and natural flow. Then, you can directly ask users for their insights in an intimate setting where they can respond earnestly to open-ended questions.

  5. Engaging with extreme users – You find the extreme cases within your userbase to determine the greatest degrees of users’ needs, problems and problem-solving methods. You can then see the full scope of problems which typical, non-extreme users might run into. If you can satisfy an extreme user, you can satisfy any user.

  6. Analogous empathy – Your team finds effective analogies to draw parallels between users’ problems and problems in other fields. This way, you can get insights you’d otherwise overlook.

  7. Sharing inspiring stories – Your team shares stories about what they have observed so you draw meaning from these and note fascinating details.

  8. Bodystorming – You wear equipment (e.g., goggles, gloves, torso attachments) to gain first-hand experience of your users in their environment.

  9. Empathy maps and customer journey maps – Your team should have at least one of these as a reference point to appreciate the users’ perspectives.

  10. Personas to establish accurate portraits/profiles of users who’ll interact with your product.

Whichever approach/es you take, beware of formulating solutions at this stage. Aim to realistically envision possible scenarios where users experience problems. Empathize is not just a key part of design thinking. It’s also pivotal to user-centered design and user experience (UX) design. When your design team remains aware of your users’ realities and passionate about helping real people solve real problems, you’ll reap precious insights which you can ultimately translate into products your users will love.

Learn More about Empathize

Take our Design Thinking course to learn how to empathize to guide successful designs.

Follow this designer’s story about how to empathize successfully.

Find invaluable tips on how to empathize here.

For a deeper view of how to empathize from a more psychology-based UX angle, read this.

Questions related to Empathize

What is empathy vs sympathy?

Empathy and sympathy are related but distinct concepts. Empathy involves understanding and sharing another person's feelings and experiencing their emotions as if they were your own. It's about stepping into someone's shoes and genuinely feeling with them. On the other hand, sympathy is recognizing another's suffering and offering comfort, often from distance or detachment. Empathy is pivotal in design, allowing designers to connect with users' needs and experiences deeply. The article on interaction-design.org further elaborates on how empathy is integral to design thinking, enabling truly human-centered solutions.

Is empathy a skill?

Yes, empathy is a skill. While some individuals may have a natural inclination towards empathetic understanding, it's a competency that can be honed and developed over time. Empathy is crucial in design, enabling professionals to resonate with users' experiences and needs deeply. Unlike analytical processes, empathy is deeply rooted in the human ability to connect with and understand another person's emotions and experiences. In the context of design, while AI tools offer advancements and efficiency, they fall short in capturing the nuance and depth of human empathy, as discussed in this video on interaction-design.org. 

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading…

This human-centric emotion remains paramount in crafting meaningful user experiences.

What does empathy mean in design?

Empathy, in design, refers to understanding and sharing users' feelings, needs, and perspectives. It's a foundational step in human-centered design, where designers immerse themselves in the user's world to craft solutions tailored to their genuine requirements. Empathizing doesn't just mean observing; it's about deeply connecting and feeling with the user, ensuring designs resonate on a human level. The significance of empathy in design is highlighted in the article on interaction-design.org, which underscores the transformative power of stories in cultivating this essential skill.

What is empathy in UI/UX design?

In UI/UX design, "empathize" is the initial phase of a five-step design process, as Riley Hunt from the Interaction Design Foundation explains in this video. 

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading…

The Empathize phase is crucial for understanding users deeply and delving into their needs, feelings, and perspectives. It involves UX teams exploring the core problem their product aims to solve. Through user interviews and reviewing existing knowledge, teams gain insights into the user's challenges and motivations. This understanding, grounded in empathy, ensures that subsequent design decisions genuinely resonate with users, making products more intuitive and user-centered. Empathy lays the foundation for creating experiences tailored to real user needs.

What is an example of empathetic design?

Empathetic design deeply understands and addresses users' needs. A classic example is OXO's Good Grips kitchen tools, created after noticing people with arthritis struggling with standard utensils. OXO designed more ergonomic, user-friendly tools by focusing on users' pain points and experiences. For a deeper dive into empathetic design, refer to the Interaction Design Foundation's article, 'Empathy: How to Improve Your Designs by Developing Empathy for Your Target Group.' This piece offers insights and strategies to harness empathy effectively in design projects.

What is lack of empathy in design?

A lack of empathy in design occurs when designers fail to consider, understand and address their users' true needs, feelings, and experiences. This results in products that might be functional or aesthetically pleasing but are not user-friendly or inclusive. Such oversight can lead to reduced user satisfaction, accessibility issues, or design solutions that miss the mark. To grasp the importance of empathy in the design process, explore the Interaction Design Foundation's article on 'Stage 1 in the Design Thinking Process: Empathise with Your Users'. This article underscores the critical role of empathy in creating effective, user-centric designs.

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading…

What are the 5 stages of design thinking?

The five stages of design thinking, as highlighted in the video by the Interaction Design Foundation, encompass a non-linear, iterative process that drives innovative solutions. These five stages are:

  1. Empathize: Understand users' needs and feelings.

  2. Define: Clarify the problem.

  3. Ideate: Generate potential solutions.

  4. Prototype: Turn ideas into testable versions.

  5. Test: Evaluate solutions with users.

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading…
Video copyright info

Hasso-Platner Institute Panorama

Ludwig Wilhelm Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as the d-school, this 5-phase model promotes a dynamic approach. Rather than following a strict sequence, designers can loop between stages or work on them concurrently, adapting to the unique requirements of each project.

What is empathy in web design?

Empathy ensures designers prioritize the user's experience in web design, mainly catering to varied abilities and disabilities. According to the video on interaction-design.org, there are four main disability types: blindness (including low vision and color blindness), hearing, cognitive, and motor impairments. The video with Frank Spillers, CEO of Experience Dynamics, emphasizes that designing with blindness in mind can address 80% of accessibility issues. 

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading…

This is mainly due to the significance of keyboard and screen reader accessibility. For instance, screen readers, like VoiceOver on iOS, help blind users by audibly reading out content. Moreover, elements like 'alt-text' on images are essential, as they provide a textual description that screen readers can convey, making the content accessible and aiding in SEO. Thus, empathy in web design ensures that websites are usable, accessible, and inclusive for everyone.

Where to learn more about empathy?

Are you looking to delve deeper into empathy in design? The Interaction Design Foundation offers an extensive course on Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide. This course provides comprehensive insights into the heart as a crucial step in the design thinking process. Enhance your understanding and skills by exploring real-world examples, expert-led content, and actionable strategies. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned designer, this course is the perfect resource for mastering empathy in design.

Answer a Short Quiz to Earn a Gift

Question 1

What is the primary goal of empathizing in design thinking?

1 point towards your gift

Question 2

Which method do designers commonly use in the empathize stage of design thinking?

1 point towards your gift

Question 3

How does empathy improve the design process?

1 point towards your gift

Question 4

What is a challenge in the empathize stage in design thinking?

1 point towards your gift

Question 5

Why is empathizing important when designers create products for international markets?

1 point towards your gift

Better luck next time!

0 out of 5 questions answered correctly

Do you want to improve your UX / UI Design skills? Join us now

Congratulations! You did amazing

5 out of 5 questions answered correctly

You earned your gift with a perfect score! Let us send it to you.

Letter from IxDF

Check Your Inbox

We’ve emailed your gift to name@email.com.

Do you want to improve your UX / UI Design skills? Join us now

Literature on Empathize

Here’s the entire UX literature on Empathize by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Empathize

Take a deep dive into Empathize with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight them on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or your website.

All open-source articles on Empathize

Please check the value and try again.

Open Access—Link to us!

We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world-class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.

If you want this to change, , link to us, or join us to help us democratize design knowledge!

Share Knowledge, Get Respect!

Share on:

or copy link

Cite according to academic standards

Simply copy and paste the text below into your bibliographic reference list, onto your blog, or anywhere else. You can also just hyperlink to this page.

Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF. (2020, June 16). What is Empathize?. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.

New to UX Design? We’re Giving You a Free ebook!

The Basics of User Experience Design

Download our free ebook The Basics of User Experience Design to learn about core concepts of UX design.

In 9 chapters, we’ll cover: conducting user interviews, design thinking, interaction design, mobile UX design, usability, UX research, and many more!

A valid email address is required.
313,418 designers enjoy our newsletter—sure you don’t want to receive it?