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Put yourself in an empathetic mindset

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. [1] Practicing empathy is especially important when your stakeholders’ age, gender, culture, ability, or circumstance differs from your own.

Effective ways to do this include:

  1. Look through blogs, interviews, or videos to find 2+ new ways to think like your stakeholders
    • Depending whether it’s appropriate or not, do what your users do! Role play and participatory observation are great ways to get new perspective on a situation.
    • Reach out to your mentors and ask about different empathy or cross-cultural exercises to help your team think like your stakeholders
  2. Download this empathy map template! [2]
    • An empathy map, a tool developed by friends of DFA and visual thinking consultants XPLANE, is a type of documentation that looks at what is going on in the head of a particular stakeholder.
  3. Identify 10+ assumptions you have about your project as a team & List them on top of the map
    • What assumptions about the stakeholder(s) or use(s)? What about the project topic? What would the final solution look like?
    • These assumptions will have to be tested while out in the field talking to real users outside of this workshop, but for now, the first step is to recognize any biases you may have.
  4. Create an empathy map for 2-3 main stakeholders to focus your learnings
    • Begin to fill out the rest of the map as a team - really try to put yourself in the user’s shoes. Consider the four different aspects of a stakeholder’s process: what a person thinks & feels, sees, says & does, and hears.
    • Look for connections between the stakeholder’s thoughts and actions to get a fuller picture of the relationship between the stakeholder and your problem space.
    • On the bottom, identify the pain and gain of the stakeholder. Pains are frustrations or risks that your user may experience in regards to your challenge. Gains are successes or benefits that your user may experience around a situation.
    • Repeat step #2 - #4 for each stakeholder in your problem space
  5. From the map, document 2-4 situations from empathy maps, or themes you’d like to know more about in your interviews.
    • What findings did you gain from the empathy map? Share within your team or share your findings with other teams!
    • Reflect and check your assumptions before you conduct interview and observations. Your team will be more open to empathizing by being aware of your assumptions or how you might allow your own biases to affect decisions.

[1] Verplank, Bill. “Interaction Design Sketchbook.” (unpublished manuscript, fall 2003)

[2] Adapted from XPLANE’s empathy map

Network Best Practices

Reflect and check your assumptions regularly like the Luna Lights team

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.

Conduct an empathy exercise like the DFA Northwestern

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.

Make empathy maps to understand the emotions of stakeholders like DFA RISD|Brown

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