Earlier I had written a primer for Design Thinking. Here I would like to dwell on the first step of Design Thinking as it is generally understood. This step is – Empathize.
What does this word mean to you? Often the word sympathize and empathize are used interchangeably. However there is a difference between these two words.
Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, proposed four defining attributes of empathy 
- See the world as others see it
- Understand another’s feelings
- Communicate the understanding
Brené Brown, a scholar, author, public speaker and researches on wide range of topics including courage, shame, vulnerability and worthiness elaborates on the same
- To be able to see the world as others see it—absorb the perspectives of the other and resist trivialization by saying ‘Oh! This is that.’
- To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person’s situation discounts the experience – Do not ask questions in your mind like ‘is he really pained or is he shamming’
- I would like to relate a story here – a king and a minister went to an orchard. The farmer greeted them and presented them with fruits from the orchard. The minister gave the choicest looking mango to the king and, the king relished the experience. He wanted another serving of the same. The minister obliged. As the second mango was being served the king looked around and went on to wonder whether the farmer was paying his taxes and in turn asked his minister to verify the same later on. The second serving did not taste as good as the first one. When enquired with the minister he received the following reply ‘Oh! King, both the servings are from the same tree however now that you doubt the farmer on his taxes, the taste has altered!’
- To understand another person’s feelings—we have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. Are we able to recognize the other’s emotions? – Relate it to some experience that you have had, draw parallels and release the point of view of the other.
- To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings— having understood it is now required that you communicate the understanding.
- Suppose a person has fallen down and is hurt – asking him how he fell or questioning as to why he could not be more careful are obviously not some of the responses. In fact in many a case someone who has fallen down is probably more embarrassed than hurt. Laughing then is not appropriate.
The video here has captured the difference between empathy and sympathy very clearly.
How then to empathize?
Empaths are those who are believed to have the ability to absorb pain from those suffering from it. It is that ability that this step requires. This is often achieved through
- Observation – see how it is done now, see the problem being faced. Observing provides very key learnings and understanding. However this needs to be complemented with additional techniques.
- Experience – Where observation may fail, it is important then to experience the same. Try tying your shoe laces with one hand, try being homeless for a night, try sitting in a classroom for eight hours.
- Ask – Try talking to the people using wheelchairs about difficulties they face, try talking to the traffic police on how his day goes.
Do this and you will perhaps be able to design a better way to design shoes that are friendlier, design a better classroom chair, or design an efficient wheelchair.
One of the best expressions of empathy in design was in the works by Roy Doty of the Wordless Workshop fame in the Popular Mechanics. See the example picture. This was a regular feature in the magazine for a long while. Each example consisted of five parts. The problem, empathy, idea, solution & implementation. You can get the book here.
While design thinking has many examples in the physical world of products that are essentially experienced by tactile senses, it need not be limited to the same. Design thinking can be practised even in the domain of software development.
Design thinking is becoming very relevant in the developing applications for mobiles, handhelds, tablets and now wearables. There is an increasing focus on user experience, user interface and data visualization. Particularly I see a change in the way requirements can be gathered. Traditionally the process of requirements gathering was through a series of interviews, reading up documents, inspecting forms and existing software. Requirements change as users understand better the promise of the new system, which in turn changes the requirements!
It is important and perhaps now obvious that it is also needed that such gatherers, if I may be allowed to use the term, should spend time with the actual end users.How you ask? – On the shop floor, in the office, at the warehouse, behind the cab driver etc.
 Wiseman, T. (1996), A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23: 1162–1167. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1996.12213.x