Empathic Design, definition and framework

In order to bring contextual and meaningful factors into a design task (Kouprie & Visser, 2009) designers should try to be close to the lives, feelings, and experiences of users to design in the way that meets users’ needs (Koskinen et al., 2003). Empathy can be counted as one of the most important attributes of the design process in a human centric project. Both designers' and users' minds help each other to reveal the exact feelings about the user who uses that specific product. For example, designers might spend a lot of time with users with disabilities to design wheelchairs for them; they may need to feel the same pain that disabled people feel to see what issues a disabled person has with an automatic wheelchair.

There have been many studies about empathic design and all of them argue that empathy is a significant quality in the process of product development that helps designers to meet customer needs (Mattelmäki & Battarbee, 2002, Suri, 2003). Empathic design supports a wide range of issues in design from rational issues to private contexts (Mattelmäki & Battarbee, 2002).

Approaches to Design with Empathy

There are several techniques for empathy in design; however, Kouprie and Visser (2009) try to categorize them into three main categories that will be presented here.

First of all, the most popular and accepted approach is being in direct contact with users (McDonagh & Bruseberg, 2000, Mattelmäki & Battarbee, 2002, Suri, 2003). Some advocates believe preparing generative sessions can provide an opportunity for users to express their thoughts (Sanders & Dandavate, 1999, Visser et al., 2005).

The second technique is communication and it is a good approach, especially for times that designers cannot meet users directly. Several techniques such as storytelling, persona and scenario design, and roleplaying have been mentioned in empathic design research (Buchenau & Suri, 2000, Go & Carroll, 2004, Lugt & Visser, 2007).

The third category contains techniques for designers to step into the role of the user and use a role-playing approach to feel experiences. Techniques here include ‘product handling’, ‘experience prototyping’, ‘bodystorming’ and ‘informance’ (Buchenau & Suri, 2000).

Empathic design framework

Regarding the aforementioned techniques, it is necessary to have a framework to apply these techniques in a certain way to tackle real UX projects. Following a framework helps designers to plan step by step to collect all the empathetic results that they need for a specific design challenge.

There are several frameworks for design with empathy; however, four of those are more popular. Stein suggested a process that has three phases: ‘the emergence of experience’, the ‘fulfilling explication’, and ‘the comprehensive objectification’ (Stein, 1917, Nilsson, 2003 & Kouprie & Visser, 2009). After him, Reik (1949) and Rogers (1975) proposed other processes. Reik (1949) believes that this might consist of identification, incorporation, reverberation and detachment. On the other hand, Rogers asserted that there are three phases: entering, living, and communication (Rogers, 1975, Hakansson, 2003). It seems these three frameworks have something in common and it is possible to summarize and modernize these models into one unified plan.

In order to implement design projects with empathy, Kouprie and Visser (2009) proposed a simple but complete framework for empathy in design. This framework tries to give insight into three key elements: motivation, ‘stepping into and out of users’ life’, and the time that should be planned for the empathetic relationship (Kouprie & Visser, 2009). The proposed framework in their article consists of four steps.

The four steps for the proposed empathetic framework are ‘discover’, ‘immersion’, ‘connection’, and ‘detachment’ (Kouprie & Visser, 2009). In discovery the designer approaches users and starts to get in contact with them. This step is supported by a list of questions, and then the designer must try to find answers on these questions around the users’ life.

After the first session, it is the time to get out of the office and be closer to users to see what happens around them without any judgment. Kouprie and Visser (2009) named this step immersion. In this step the designer must be open-minded and just catch users’ points of view. After that, the designer must try to recall users’ thoughts in an understandable way in order to make an emotional connection. This step helps both sides to understand feelings and meaning about a specific issue. In the final step, detachment, since the level of understanding has been raised enough, it is time to get back into the role of a designer and start ideation (Kouprie & Visser, 2009).

As a framework for empathic design, one sees the importance of these steps in a successful user experience design:
  • In all of these steps, the designer must only care about users in all possible aspects, which resonates perfectly with the definition of user experience design.
  • These steps can be categorized into two parts. The first part, which consists of the first two steps, is more about users and their real life. The second part, which consists of connection and detachment, is closer to design solutions.
  • The connection and detachment phases of the empathic design framework have the potential to catch users’ design ideas and issues with the final product. They are able to discuss feelings and meaning in a specific context.
  • It seems necessary to use powerful tools in each step to collect meaningful information about the user and find a language that helps users to share their feeling in the connection step.
IDEO published a book in 2008 called Human Centered Design that tried to provide toolkits around the user centric design (IDEO, 2008). The book proposes three main sections in a human centered project: hear, create, and deliver. Then it introduces several steps and methods for each part. When it comes to the ‘create’ section and in its first step, ‘develop the approach’, it talks about two methods. The first one is participatory co-design and the second one is empathic design.

It is interesting that IDEO has placed empathic design in the first step of the creation process and pointed out that empathic design should be done not only to generate ideas in a design team, but also to have the users in mind throughout the whole process. In the book the authors emphasize the importance of this and as their framework for doing human centered design projects, they used empathic design in several domains.

On the other hand, they introduce empathic design next to participatory co-design as two supportive tools for developing the approach in a design project. It can be argued that there is a success key in this combination and it can be more valuable if these two methods could be applied in a user centered design project, in order to get involve with users’ feelings and active thoughts when they are doing a participatory design.


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