Design Thinking Through The Role Of Empathy

I believe that empathy is at the heart of design. I think so because if you do not understand the needs of others and understanding what others experience, feel and see, design will be an unnecessary task. I think empathy can be truly inspirational. Köppen and Meinel, (2015) describes empathy as very crucial to design thinking. This means that empathic insights are a basis for extremely important knowledge that originates from the concrete interaction with other people. There are three types of knowledge that characterise the design thinking process driven by empathy. These are technological knowledge, knowledge of customer needs and knowledge about the product language. The last two forms of knowledge are rooted on the empathic understanding of other people (Köppen and Meinel, 2015).

Empathy is a term that describes perspective-taking, including the involuntary acts of feeling with someone else as well as the cognitive feeling of putting oneself in the position of another person and viewing things from their perspective. This means that empathy is the capacity to share and experience the feelings of others and it allows us the ability to comprehend the perspectives and situations of others both affectively and imaginatively. In applying empathy to design thinking, it permits us to create solutions that reconstruct the specific perspective of other people and how they perceive the situation. As shown in the definition, design thinking is about seeing the world from the perspective of other people. Through this perspective, products are not designed for customers, but experiences are created for people. Gasparini, (2015) notes that design thinking thrives on rapid prototyping, abductive reasoning and empathy to create solutions that are innovative. Whilst these three components are important, the focus of this article is on empathy.

Empathy plays an important role in design thinking because it requires us to put aside our knowledge, learning, opinions and worldview so that we can understand the experiences of other people more meaningfully and deeply (Liedtka, 2015). I believe this requires an impersonal approach that requires a strong sense of imagination to be able to create things from the perspective of others. At the first step of any design process, empathy provides the basis for creating products that really reflect the needs of the customer/clients. The other stages are to define, ideate, prototype and test the product. When a designer shows empathy in the first stage of the process by understanding the needs of the people served by the design, the designer designs for the people as well as creating a solution for a problem. To successfully achieve this involves empathising with consumers, engaging them and observing the target audience that the solution would help. Köppen and Meinel, (2015) argues that empathy is only possible if one’s own perspective is rejected to favour the perspective of the observed user. An empathy map can be used to visualise what the user says, thinks, does and feels. The ‘say’ concentrates on what the users says during an interview or during a usability study. The ‘think’ quadrant captures what the user thinks about the entire experience. The ‘does’ quadrant describes the actions of the user does physically while the ‘feel’ quadrant examines the user’s emotional state which can be context-specific.

This blog post has highlighted the role of empathy in design thinking. This means that empathy is relevant for designers to perceive things from the perspective of the user, thereby creating solutions that are meaningful and useful in resolving the needs of the user. Without empathy, ‘selfish products’ will be created which may not provide solutions that meet the needs of users.


Gasparini, A., (2015), February. Perspective and use of empathy in design thinking. In ACHI, The Eight International Conference on Advances in Computer-Human Interactions (pp. 49-54).

Köppen, E. and Meinel, C., (2015). Empathy via design thinking: creation of sense and knowledge. In Design thinking research (pp. 15-28). Springer, Cham.

Liedtka, J., (2015). Perspective: Linking design thinking with innovation outcomes through cognitive bias reduction. Journal of Product Innovation Management32(6), pp.925-938.

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