6 mins

Understanding user needs: The role of empathy in design thinking

The Role of Empathy in Design Thinking

POV: You’re in a meeting that just never seems to end, and it’s almost lunchtime. Just when your stomach growls, a notification pops up on your screen. It’s from a food app and it reads, “It’s lunchtime! Order now before those hunger pangs get worse!” You click on it almost immediately and place your order feeling amazed at how intuitive this whole experience just was.

This is a classic lesson on how empathy is used in design thinking, and how it presents a two-pronged approach that benefits both- the user and the business. In this blog, we will be taking a deeper dive into how user needs are understood through effective design thinking empathy.

Design Thinking Empathy: An Imperative For The Digital Age

In today’s digital age, organizations are continuously on the lookout to improve their products and services. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is by using design thinking.

This approach focuses on understanding user needs to create innovative solutions that address their pain points. Empathy plays a crucial role in design thinking by helping designers gain a deeper understanding of their users, and what they want most.

The Importance of empathy in understanding user needs

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In design thinking, empathy means putting yourself in the user’s shoes to gain a deeper understanding of their needs and pain points. By empathizing with users, designers can identify their unmet needs and create solutions that address them. Empathy helps designers go beyond the surface-level problems and discover the root cause of the issue.

By building empathy, designers can produce products and services that genuinely delight customers and simplify their lives. Without empathy, the design process lacks the crucial user-centricity that frequently makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful product.

Empathy and Innovation

Phase 1 of the Design Thinking process, which is regarded as the beginning of any design project, is empathy. The designer takes the time to get to know the user and comprehend their needs, wants, and goals during the design thinking empathy period. This entails paying attention to and interacting with people to comprehend their psychological and mental states.

Designers put their preconceptions aside during the empathize period. It is human nature that makes us believe that, in certain circumstances, other people will think and feel the same way we do, but this isn’t always the case. Suspending your own perspective of the world allows you to genuinely see it through your users’ eyes, which is the first step in developing empathy for users, and this drives innovation.

Take for example an instance cited by the Harvard Business Review wherein a brand manager for a spray-on cooking oil found an entirely unanticipated trigger when he observed his neighbor using the product on the bottom of his lawn mower. When pressed for an explanation, the neighbor noted that the oil had no negative effects on the yard and had kept the cut grass from sticking to the mower’s bottom.

Such unexpected usage patterns can reveal chances for product innovation and redesign as well as to break into newer markets.

Challenges of Practicing Empathy in Design Thinking

Practicing design thinking empathy can be challenging due to three primary reasons, which include:

Overcoming personal biases: Designers must be aware of their personal biases and try to put them aside when empathizing with users. Personal biases can prevent designers from seeing the user’s perspective and understanding their needs accurately.

Balancing empathy with business objectives: Designers must balance empathy with business objectives. While empathy is essential to creating user-centric solutions, designers must also consider the business’s goals and objectives.

Time and resource constraints: Designers may not have enough time or resources to practice empathy adequately. This can lead to rushed solutions that do not fully address the user’s needs.

This said, there are many ways in which effective design thinking empathy can flourish, and it’s now time to take a look at the methods you can use to achieve this.

Methods of Empathy in Design Thinking

Observation and Immersion

Designers can observe users in their natural environment to gain a deeper understanding of their behavior and needs. Observing users in action, whether they are in their natural environment or are fully immersed in a scenario, is also incredibly helpful. By photographing or filming users as they interact with your product, you can learn about their needs, motivations, and challenges that they may not be conscious of or able to express.


Conducting empathy interviews is one method for developing sensitivity. The key to conducting a successful empathy interview is to set up the session as an open dialogue rather than attempting to direct it with a predetermined set of questions. Keep in mind that the objective is to gain as much insight as you can, not to support or refute a preconceived idea.

Asking “why” frequently (even if you believe you already know the answer! ), asking non-binary inquiries, promoting storytelling, and observing nonverbal cues are all great ways to demonstrate empathy during interviews.


Working together with other parties to direct the design process is known as co-creation. In facilitated workshops, participants with various roles align and provide a range of insights to designers. One of the most popular methods in design thinking is empathy, 58% of businesses are now piloting co-creation projects to help drive innovation.

A great example of the co-creation method is that of FMCG giant Unilever. Unilever presents particular challenges to the public through its Open Innovation platform, which it launched in 2010, and invites people to submit solutions for potential adoption by the business.

These include things like cutting-edge oil oxidation technology, freezing and cooling systems, and intelligent product packing, among other things. If a proposal is accepted, the submitter may be given both professional recognition and a business contract for their offering.

The co-creation strategy used by Unilever illustrates the value of open innovation and the potential applications of crowdsourcing to address issues, even complex ones demanding technical knowledge and expertise.

Benefits of Empathy in Design Thinking

While design thinking empathy is now a go-to for most organizations, here are the amazing benefits it offers.

Improved User Experience

Empathy helps designers create solutions that meet users’ needs and preferences, resulting in an improved user experience. User-centric solutions are easier to use, more intuitive, and provide a better overall experience for the user. This can result in increased user satisfaction, reduced frustration, and improved customer retention.

Increased Customer Loyalty

By creating user-centric solutions, designers can build trust and loyalty with their users. When users feel understood and valued, they are more likely to remain loyal to the brand and its products or services. Loyal customers are more likely to recommend the brand to others, leading to increased customer acquisition and retention.

Higher Quality Products and Services

Empathy helps designers identify the root cause of user pain points and needs, allowing them to create more effective solutions. By understanding users’ needs, designers can create products and services that better meet those needs, resulting in higher-quality solutions. Higher quality products and services can lead to increased customer satisfaction, improved brand reputation, and increased market share.

Increased Market Share

Empathy can help businesses differentiate themselves from their competitors by creating unique and user-centric solutions. When a company’s products or services meet users’ needs better than its competitors, it can gain a competitive advantage and increase its market share. By focusing on the user, companies can create solutions that stand out in the market and attract new customers.

Implementing Design Thinking Empathy

With this comprehensive introduction to design thinking empathy, it is rather evident that the right process by the right UX designers can work wonders for your business. So go ahead and reach out to us for the best UX design solutions on the market!

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