Design Thinking Empathy by Kaan Turnali

Empathy, Design Thinking, And An Obsession With Customer-Centric Innovation

To deliver innovative, customer-centric solutions through design thinking, we must begin with empathy.

In its simplest and purest form, empathy enables us to not only experience and understand another person’s circumstances, but it also puts us in our customers’ shoes to experience what they are feeling.

This is where we find the innate struggle born out of user frustrations and bound to the intrinsic value chain of the user experience.

Without a doubt, empathy is the most important design thinking principle I will cover in this series. Its universal application offers infinite promise.

Customer-centric design is about looking out from the inside, rather than outside in

Design thinking helps us cut through the opacity that surrounds our customers’ (or users’) needs and behaviors, their connections with existing ecosystems, and their interactions with one another. In essence, empathy becomes a compass that guides us along the innovation path as we set out to discover hidden, but detectable, elements of the user experience.

We embrace the empathy principle by living and experiencing our users’ pain points and state of mind strictly from their perspective. This is why customer-centric design should be a practice of looking out from the inside—and not as outsiders looking in. It requires us to open our nerve endings, so to speak, and increase our awareness in a state of design mindfulness.

We can’t do that from behind a desk, inside the margins of an interview, or on the pages of a requirements document. We need to be right in the trenches, working, observing, and, more importantly, suffering side by side with them within their authentic circles and under realistic conditions. Only then do we have a chance to live the experience—rather than experience it in a distant light.

The more we know, the more biased we become

The more we know about something; the more prone we become to intuitive bias. This mindset can turn our expertise and experience into perceived knowledge and resurface them in a form that can be both restrictive in its forward-thinking motion and narrow in its depth and angle.

To be clear, this viewpoint neither rejects nor diminishes the knowledge and experience we bring to the table. Subject-matter expertise is not only a critical multiplier of design thinking, but it is also essential to collective insight. (More on this topic later in the series).

What we are advocating here is the strength that lies in the application of the empathy principle: The desire to seek realization and perceptiveness in the experience—not accumulated experience confined to raw knowledge.

Validating design in the absence of rigid knowledge is how we gain true insight and uncover design blind spots. We want to focus on the problem and defer any preconceived notions about the solution. Think of it as a reset button. If applied correctly, we experience the world around us in the proper light. We lead ourselves (and others who join us in this journey) into a state of alertness that cuts thru bias—conscious or unconscious—that could otherwise impact our ability to be receptive toward creative solutions and possibilities.

Focus on users’ experiences, especially the emotional ones

Don’t underestimate or skip emotional boundaries around which a product, service, or process is designed and built. These edges may be rough and sometimes come with baggage. That is precisely where we find the greatest opportunity.

Humans react to emotional probes—solicited or not—that are often accompanied by emotional assurances rather than logic, reason, or dispassion. I call these “emosurances.” They include things such as: “We don’t want to be left in the dark.” “Updates and continuous information flow are good.” “We want to know the next steps.” “We hate uncertainty.”

Regardless of their shape, form, or frequency, we seek these cues to assure ourselves. They play a critical role in shaping the user experience. Emosurances are the points of light in design thinking that we seek to uncover, which are commonly hidden or marginal.

Empathy is the shortest distance between design thinking and customer-centric innovation

When we place the customer (user) at the core of everything we do in our design-thinking journey, we foster a human-centered approach that always focuses on needs, including those that are unarticulated or unknown. If we can bring empathy to the forefront and make it a focal point of our thinking, we expand our capacity to experience and understand before judging or executing. That’s the essence of customer empathy.

This approach creates an incredible opportunity to deepen our frame of design thinking—a prerequisite for thinking in the design. And empathy lies within the depths of our passion and tenacity that yields itself to an obsession with customer-centric innovation.