The role of empathy in product design

Products are made to be used. This applies to the design of any product, be it a hammer, a school bus, or the latest social media app. Products need to achieve their most practical functions, but if they were all purely utilitarian, we’d surely live in a lackluster world. 

At the same time, products designed only for aesthetics, while delightful to the eye, may be impractical to use or even wasteful. Have you ever purchased a fancy chrome appliance that malfunctioned in less than a year? Or downloaded a colorful app that confused you at every turn? The frustration you felt is familiar to us all.

Dieter Rams, the renowned German industrial designer, wrestled with this matter decades ago. Known for a design philosophy he summarized as “less, but better,” he took issue with the design world of the late ‘70s, calling it an “impenetrable confusion of forms, colours, and noises.” Seeking to clarify his role as a conscious, sustainable designer, he created 10 principles for good design.

According to Rams’ thinking, good design is:

  1. Innovative
  2. Useful
  3. Aesthetic
  4. Understandable
  5. Unobtrusive
  6. Honest
  7. Long-lasting
  8. Thorough down to the last detail
  9. Environmentally friendly
  10. As little design as possible (less is more)

Rams’ 10 principles help designers create products that are lean and purposeful. You can see his method embodied in his work for the brands Braun and Vitsoe, often on view in modern art museums throughout the world. He has also influenced the work of Apple designer Jonathan Ive, and Rams has called Apple one of the few companies that understand and practice good design.

Check out the 2009 documentary “Objectified” to hear Rams and Ive in their own words:

Objectified - Trailer

Human-Centered Design Takes it Farther

Human-centered design gives us another framework for approaching design work. In human-centered design (often referred to as just “design thinking”), we’re challenged to expand our lens beyond our effort to create the ideal product. Instead, we’re called to create products that are desirable (to humans), viable (for business), and feasible (in technology or materials)

The renowned design firm IDEO, a leader in the design thinking community, expresses it this way:

Human-centered designers always start from the place of not knowing the answer to the problem they’re looking to solve. And in a culture that can be too focused on being the first one to the right answer, that’s not a particularly comfortable place to be. But by starting at square one, we’re forced to get out into the world and talk to the people we’re looking to serve. We also get to open up creatively, to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions. By embracing that ambiguity, and by trusting that the human-centered design process will guide us toward an innovative answer, we actually give ourselves permission to be fantastically creative.

This approach positions design as an act of problem-solving, and shifts our orientation away from ourselves as designers, and our fixation on what we envision as the ideal product. Instead, we’re called to serve the needs of the people who will use our products. They, after all, will have to live with our flawed designs, and it is they who will determine the success or failure of our endeavors.

woman working at a laptop

The Role of Empathy in Product Design

IDEO offers valuable tools for applying human centered design practices. The role of empathy is integral to this work:

Empathy is the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand their lives, and start to solve problems from their perspectives. Human-centered design is premised on empathy, on the idea that the people you’re designing for are your roadmap to innovative solutions.

“Empathise” is, in fact, the first stage of the interactive design process – the other stages being “define,” “ideate,” “prototype,” and “test.” This process is cyclical, and gives us a chance to return to the act of empathy again and again.

pinboard with a post-it that reads "people first"

Finding Inspiration

The seed of an idea often comes from our own experiences. A mother struggles with the booking process for her child’s music lessons, or a small business owner is frustrated by the process of paying their workers. Mining your own experiences can be a great way to get ideas about where current products aren’t working well and form hypotheses on how to improve or redesign existing products. But to begin and end with our own experiences is to limit our outcomes.

Human centered design gives us a more comprehensive, powerful method for approaching design work. This is particularly important when creating for populations that differ from our own or that challenge dominant societal assumptions or stereotypes. By applying empathy and engaging deeply with our user community, we can overcome our own assumptions and create more useful, valuable, and well designed products.

Introducing Radical Empathy

In her Medium article “Practicing radical empathy in product design,” UX Researcher Pushpinder Lubana calls us to take the empathetic approach a step farther by applying the practice of radical empathy. She writes, “Those of us in the business of building products have a moral and ethical responsibility to do our part by building for those who have been historically neglected and underserved by technology.”

She calls for designers to preface their work with two important steps: 

  1. Acknowledging your bias in building products
  2. Proactively seeking to understand and build for the underrepresented and marginalized

The traditional (outdated) attitude toward underrepresented and marginalized communities is to treat them as edge cases – extraneous to the work of designing for mainstream commercial audiences. By centering them in the process, however, we learn unexpected things. This process makes our designs more accessible while deepening our work and expanding the creativity of our designs.

Taking it to the Streets

Dieter Rams’ 10 principles give us a valuable framework for addressing the question of how to design products that are useful, aesthetically pleasing, and not wasteful. This approach liberates us from a culture of excess and remains deeply relevant in a time of limited resources and environmental distress.

three businesswoman walk confidently through a building

Human-centered design helps us answer the question of what we’re doing – solving problems for real people in multi varied environments. The practice of empathy helps us approach the question of why we design, by understanding the needs and emotions of the individuals we’re designing for. Radical empathy brings depth to our design process by recognizing our personal biases and centering the needs of marginalized communities. 

All of these practices help us become better designers and to create products that are needed, wanted, and even treasured. In a world where landfills overflow with the detritus of our lives and millions of creative hours are wasted on the development of unloved and abandoned products, this is a cause worth struggling for.

LimeTech is a creative tech company with a focus on app development. We help brands grow their impact by building digital products that please customers and solve business challenges. Our work includes strategy, design, content, and tech planning. Check out our portfolio or reach out to start a conversation about your project.

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