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  • Writer's pictureGanesh Pawase

What is empathy?

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Empathy in design gained recognition in the last two decades. In user-centered design and design thinking, empathy has more importance. Designers empathize with users to gain a deeper understanding of their needs, wants, and frustrations.

Designers know empathy as the "ability to understand and share the feelings of another" (definition of empathy as per oxford dictionary.). In contrast, collins's dictionary states that" empathy is the ability to share another person's feelings and emotion as if they were own. "Empathy is confused with sympathy and compassion, although all these words have a different meaning. Oxford dictionary defines sympathy as "feeling for someone's misfortune," and compassion is defined as "a strong feeling of sympathy for others suffering and desire to help them." Empathy is the most misguided word in the design process.


Empathy in design gained recognition in the last two decades. In user-centered design and design thinking, empathy has more importance. Designers empathize with users to gain a deeper understanding of their needs, wants, and frustrations. Several frameworks are developed to support empathetic design, such as stepping in and out of the user's life (Kouprie & Visser, 2009), Stages of empathy in design (LEYVA,2013), and Empathic design as a framework for design (TELLEZ F. Andresa*; GONZALEZ-TOBON Juanita 2019). Dorothy A. Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport first used the empathic design term in 1997 for Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design article in Harvard Business Review. In contrast, Jane Fulton Suri highlighted the importance of observation in Empathic Design: Informed and Inspired by Other People's Experience 2003.


In this era, companies know that if they do not understand customers' feelings and values, it would be difficult for them to sell their products; here, empathy plays a crucial role. There is a lot of pressure on designers and design researchers to empathize with the users to innovate new products.


Empathy is understanding other's pain, not judging or agreeing with them, and giving our perspective to solve their problem. Empathy is understanding in what surrounding other person feel distressed and why? Empathy is the first stage of design thinking and the vital state of user-centre design. Empathy is an essential skill set for designers, doctors, nurses, and other health care workers.


Edward Titchener first coined the empathy term in 1909 into the English language from the German word "Einfühlung." Empathy is often misunderstood for the words sympathy and compassion. Sympathizing means feeling sorrow about other's situations or feeling pain about other's misfortune, whereas compassion means having sensitivity about other's situations. It also means suffering emotionally.


In design, empathy is not well documented. The designer needs to understand the user's needs, wants, motivation, suffering, pleasure, and desire to develop a solution based on a hypothesis where empathy plays a crucial role (Smeenk, 2018). On the other hand, (Mead 1934, Piaget & Gabain 1932) define empathy as "understanding other's feelings without sharing their level of the emotional state." (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972), states that empathy is a state to share another's feeling and emotional state.



(Leonard and Rayport, 1997) suggested five stages of empathy through design:


  1. Observation - A designer needs to observe stakeholders and users.

  2. Capturing Data - Designers need to capture data in photographs or videos because users give expression and visual cues, which are essential to understand them.

  3. Reflection and Analysis - Once the designer captures the data, they return to their team and present data to other designers who were not part of the observed group to see different things and uncover hidden problems.

  4. Brainstorming and Solution - These are valuable sessions for innovation and an approach to the problem from a different level.

  5. Prototyping- It helps the team to clarify assumptions about the product or service. The team can discuss the prototype and find new ways to solve a problem.


Koskinen, Battarbee, and Mattelmäki (2003) developed designer radar for design research methods. It is a combination of design-centered and user-centered design methods.


In 2003, Fulton Suri recommended role-plays, metaphors, personas, and experience prototyping as empathic design methods.

Metaphors help the designer to mimic the user's environment, beliefs, and aspirations. In addition, metaphors help to communicate the idea clearly. Finally, designers use a persona to represent their findings to a broader audience. prototype helps designers to create an in-depth experience for users and gives designers opportunities to observe them. Whereas role-plays help designers to understand the psychological aspects of the product.


Peter Wright, John McCarthy (January 2008) used empathy as a defining characteristic of the designer user relationship. They proposed qualitative approaches such as ethnography, cultural probe, and narrative to evoke emotions and experiences to understand user's dreams, experiences, emotions, expectations, and context of use to empathize with them.


  1. Ethnography - It is a way to know the user's environment better in what conditions and under what stress the user uses the product, and how he/she feels about the product. It also helps the designer understand what it feels like when using a product or service. Lastly, analyzing the situation and writing on it will clear designers' minds and give designers a new insight into the problem.

  2. Cultural Probe - It is a design method in which the designer understands what it feels like to be a user. In the cultural probe, designers do not observe directly to the participant. Instead, it is an investigation of users from the first contact of the product. The cultural probe is especially based on a single issue, and it aims to transform users' lives in small but significant ways.

  3. Empathy through imagining others - Role-play and experience prototype is used to imagine users and their experiences. In role-play, designers know how to be someone, and experience prototype designers become users, explore problems, and find new insights.


Kouprie, Merlijn & Sleeswijk Visser, Froukje. (2009) suggested that by stepping in into the user's world, the designer can experience his/her emotions and frustrations, and stepping out is necessary for a designer to think from the designer's perspective and find the solution to unmet needs. Kouprie & Visser proposed a four-stage framework for empathy in design in 2009.


Discover - Designer enter into the world of user and eager to explore it.

Immersion - The designer goes deep into the user world and tries to understand it with an open mind and share the experience as a user.

Connection - Designer recalls the users' world and connects with feelings and experiences them to understand them and understand what they mean?

Detachment - The designer then disconnects with the user and its environment emotionally and thinks about a solution and looks for new insights.



Most Researchers such as (McDonagh-Philp and Bruseberg 2000, Mattelmäki and Battarbee 2002, Fulton Suri 2003, Leonard and Rayport 1997, Sanders and Dandavate 1999, and Sleeswijk Visser et al. 2005) proposed that direct contact with the user will help the designer to empathize more to the context of product use. It will help the designer to explore unknown needs.


Types of Empathy -

According to literature research, empathy is differentiated by two components which are affective and cognitive. Devecchi & Guerrini, 2017 state that both cognitive and affective empathy works in design so a designer can understand the user and user's surroundings.


  1. Cognitive Empathy - It is defined as understanding the feelings of others without sharing an emotional state (Mead, 1934; Piaget & Gabain, 1932). Cognitive empathy is also described as stepping into the user's world, connecting, discovering, and merging into it, then stepping back and detaching from this world to analyze and create own perspective (Kouprie & Visser, 2009.) The Prefrontal and temporal brain region are responsible for cognitive empathy. These regions of the brain are responsible for connecting and capturing other's feelings.

  2. Affective Empathy - It is also known as emotional empathy. Affective empathy or emotional empathy enables us to share other's feelings emotionally. Research suggests that affective empathy plays a vital role in role-playing activity (Mead 1934).

However, for designers, both cognitive and affective forms are essential for triggering empathy.


Empathic Horizon -

(McDonagh-Philip & Denton, 1999) define Empathic horizon as the ability of a person to empathize with others, and it depends upon the background of a person. Empathic horizon can be increased with experience. A designer can easily broaden their empathic horizon than other people because they understand the user's pain points and develop new concepts to solve them.


To conclude, empathy is an essential skill for a designer. Empathy will increase understanding of products or services so that designers can come up with new concepts to solve unmet needs.


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