Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry Carolien E. Postma 1,*, Elly Zwartkruis-Pelgrim 2, Elke Daemen 2, and Jia Du 2

Principles of Empathic Design

Empathic design is a design research approach that is directed towards building creative understanding of users and their everyday lives for new product development (NPD). Creative understanding is the combination of a rich, cognitive and affective understanding, and the ability to translate this understanding into user-centered products and services (Wright & McCarthy, 2005). It draws on information about the user and his/her everyday life, and it includes inspiration for design and empathy, or ‘a feel’ for the user (Postma, Lauche, & Stappers, 2009). The empathic design approach is considered most valuable in the early stages of NPD, when product opportunities need to be identified and product concepts developed (Koskinen & Battarbee, 2003). 

The first principle is balancing rationality and emotions in building understanding of users’ experiences. In 1996, Dandavate, Sanders and Stuart noticed that the human factors discipline has mainly focused on the scientific study of the rational domain, i.e., how people understand and use products. Understanding people’s experiences of owning and using products, they argued, requires a more holistic approach that includes the emotional domain,

i.e., their feelings and experiences. Addressing emotions and rationality in a balanced way will help researchers and designers “to understand those uniquely human traits that are responsible for people’s liking, using, and wanting to live with the products [they] design” (Dandavate et al., 1996, p.415). In empathic design this balance is found by combining observations of what people do with interpretations of what people think, feel and dream (Dandavate et al., 1996; Fulton Suri, 2003a).

The second principle that we identified is the need to make empathic inferences about users and their possible futures. In empathic design, people’s feelings and experiences are thought to be best understood through empathy (e.g., Dandavate et al., 1996; Segal & Fulton Suri, 1997). Empathy can be described as the ability to understand what it feels like to be another person – what that person’s situation is like from his/her own perspective (Wright & McCarthy, 2008). Empathic design calls upon designers’ and researchers’ empathic abilities in making interpretations of what people think, feel and dream, and in envisioning possible future situations of product use (Black, 1998; Fulton Suri, 2003a; Steen, 2008).

The third principle is one of involving users as partners in NPD. In empathic design, designers and researchers continually develop and check their creative understanding of users’ experiences in dialogues with users over time (Fulton Suri, 2003a; Postma et al., 2009). Users are seen as the experts of their experiences and crucial partners in building creative understanding of these experiences (McDonagh, 2008; Sanders & Dandavate, 1999; Wright & McCarthy, 2008).

The fourth and last principle that we identified is the engagement of design team members as multi-disciplinary experts in performing user research. In the article “Design for experiencing: New tools,” Sanders and Dandavate (1999) notice that the roles of designer and researcher are becoming mutually interdependent. Social scientists bring in research skills and frameworks that are necessary for gathering user experience data and for understanding users’ experiences, while designers bring in design skills necessary for transforming understanding of users’ experiences into opportunities and ideas. Empathic design suggests that researchers and designers join forces in designing and conducting user research to make sure that the user perspective is included in NPD (Black, 1998; Leonard & Rayport, 1997).