How can we put ourselves in the user’s shoes to build empathy with the users and the problem space?
Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels and to share their perspective. It is at the heart of human-centered design. Knowing the needs, desires, and reactions of users help create designs grounded in user behavior and motivation.  Practicing empathy is especially important when your stakeholders’ age, gender, culture, ability, or circumstance differs from your own.
Effective ways to do this include:
 Verplank, Bill. “Interaction Design Sketchbook.” (unpublished manuscript, fall 2003)
 Adapted from XPLANE’s empathy map
DFA Northwestern’s Luna Lights team did an exercise to check their assumptions with their mentor Sara Aye, co-founder of Greater Good Studio. The team listed out their assumptions, compared them with each other, and questioned them before going into user research. Your assumptions may be challenged or confirmed as you go through user research, but the most important first step is to acknowledge them! Being aware of your assumptions is important in user research as it ground your design on data not personal assumptions.
In winter 2011, DFA Northwestern studio ran a workshop on designing for those who are visually impaired. To empathize with their users, the studio paired up the members and made one of the members wear a blindfold while the other observed and asked questions. The task was to walk from a building to a train station and get on a train. By performing everyday tasks with the blindfolds and without assistance, the studio members were able to empathize with both those suffering from visual impairment and those who are caretakers or friends of the users.
During a Design for America workshop at Better World by Design (BWxD) conference at RISD|Brown, the facilitators asked workshop participants to create empathy maps that could be used to draw insights and brainstorm solutions. Click here to download the Empathy PPT slides from BWxD 2013