My car does not start when I buy vanilla ice cream.

In 2010, this funny complaint took the whole team at Pontiac by surprise.

Empathy in design thinking

The team could've easily disregarded the issue by labelling it as stupid, but they took a different approach instead.

They decided to empathize with the person who made the complaint.

Empathy is at the core of design thinking! It helps businesses devise solutions that will meet the needs of their customers.

What Is Design Thinking?

It's out-of-the-box thinking that asks probing questions, challenges assumptions, and creates user-centric solutions .

Empathy is the foundation of design thinking.

The 5 non-linear steps of empathic design: 1. Empathize 2. Define 3. Ideate 4. Prototype 5. Test Image By Satarupa Das Majumder

  • The five-step procedure includes repeated trial and error cycles until a satisfactory solution is found

  • Known as a practical, innovative problem-solving tool

    • Eg: The Good Grips Line was created to make cooking tools more accessible to people with arthritis

  • Useful for imprecise or ill-defined problems.

    • Eg: By studying an autistic nonverbal patient's behavior, AT Kingwood Trust improved the design of a care facility

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand another person's problems by putting yourself in their shoes.


According to Theresa Wiseman, empathy has four attributes.

Gain Perspective

  • Flaticon Icon Try to imagine what the other person is going through by emotionally detaching yourself.

  • A suitable empathetic response is, "You've been through a lot!"

Practice Non-judgmental Behavior

  • Flaticon Icon Avoid remarks that imply the other person is thinking incorrectly.

  • A suitable empathetic response is, "This type of challenge isn't easy!"


  • Flaticon Icon Understand and validate the other person's emotions through proper expressions.

  • A suitable empathetic response is, "Is there anything else you'd like to say?"

Acknowledge the emotion

  • Flaticon Icon Mirror the emotions that the other person is experiencing.

  • A suitable empathetic response is, "This bothers me as well!"


You own a DIY store. One afternoon, you come across an upset customer who complains that a kit didn't include all of the parts. How would you respond with empathy?

What Is Empathic Design?

Empathic design means creating user experiences that are responsive to real-world user needs. Empathy helps you design solutions that make users' lives easier by solving their problems.

An empathic designer seeks answers to the following:

  • What are the pain points — or difficulties — people are experiencing in the context of the problem?

  • What is their immediate environment?

  • How are their difficulties amplified by their environment?

  • How are their lives impacted by the problem?

Two people at an office table discussing pain points. Photo by The Jopwell Collection on Unsplash

How to Apply Empathy In Design Thinking

A woman saying,

Meet Reba!

She recently started an event planning business. Her first client had great hopes but was disappointed with the online registration forms and chat capabilities she offered at their first virtual event.

How can Reba put her empathic design skillsto use?

  1. Empathize: Reba held feedback sessions with her client to understand more about their difficulties and how they affected the client's experience.

  2. Define: She identified the pain points as being a poorregistration experience and an insecure information distribution experience.

  3. Ideate: She conceptualized a custom event app that would address these registration and security problems.

  4. Prototype: She contracted a third-party vendor to develop the app for the best user experience.

  5. Test: She observed her client using the app in real time.


The app worked really well, but Reba noticed her client had difficulty using some key features. What should she do to address the issue?

Take Action

Ready to take the next leap! Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

Are you ready to be an empathic designer?


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