Empathy. The Cornerstone of the Philosophy, the Principles, the Process of Design Thinking

I conduct Design Thinking talks and programmes quite frequently. And during most of my sessions, for audiences as varied as Finance professionals, Sales managers, HR leaders, Engineers and Designers, someone from my participants always asks me: “but isn’t the idea of creating solutions based on User needs common sense? A no-brainer? A piece of wisdom from our grandfather’s time?”

And my answer is invariably and emphatically “YES!”

And yet, when we dive in to understand the and apply Design Thinking, I see participants struggle to do exactly that. Immerse themselves in the User/Stakeholder’s experience. Observe, Engage, Watch and Listen, for clues and signs that tell of habits and behaviours, needs and interests, fears and desires. The critical “why” behind decisions and actions, the “what” behind causes and motivations.

Everybody knows the need for Empathy. Everybody understands the significance and implications of User-Centred thinking, before designing and solutioning. Yet, very few can practice it.

Because years, maybe lifetimes of conditioning, experiences, frames of reference and biases come in the way of objectively looking at data and facts, to take in user experiences for what they are, and not judge and prematurely evaluate. The conflict between what we think “we know already” and the surprising realities of “what we find” when we observe are not easy to reconcile with. We are not listening beyond the noises in our heads, and missing important clues that can help us make sense of the world. What Tim Brown at IDEO calls “sense-making”.

And yet, there lies the only way ahead. The ONLY way to Customer Centricity, to meaningful solutions and products, to real innovation. To counter assumptions and biases, and understand, really understand what really matters. That’s why we start with Empathise, before we can even Define the problem to solve.

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To be clear, this focus on Users neither rejects nor diminishes the knowledge and experience the participants bring to the table. Subject-matter expertise is not only a critical multiplier of Design Thinking, it is also essential to developing meaningful, collective insights or points of view (as further source of data).

However, there is no alternative to Empathy and generating insights through Empathy research. And it is the cornerstone of not just Design Thinking, but getting better in life. As David Kelley puts it “The main tenet of design thinking is Empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building Empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”

Empathy helps us understand other people, put ourselves in their shoes, and only when we are able to do that can we see things from different perspectives. And that is what we need to solve their problems, and improve our situations.

Here’s a great video on Empathy. Empathy is something that can make us better as human beings. And also create better cities where we listen to citizens, schools where we listen to students, relationships where we listen to partners. Empathy is our sign of success as a race, and our hope for the future.

 

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