Empathy, the keystone of Design Thinking, techniques to succeed and why do we fail to be user-centric?

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In our previous article, we described how design thinking built upon empathy and intuition to identify critical user requirements and define imaginative ways to resolve their needs. In this post, we are going deeper into this user-centered process as the keystone to conceive and create a successful innovative product, service, or process.

We see how several companies are using tools like Big data and AI to offer solutions to ever-changing user requirements based on technological advancements. They have cracked the code of customization and believe that every customer is unique and a single solution does not fit all. On the other side, these same companies never underestimate the importance of deep interaction and understanding of human behavior which leads to successful innovation as human behavior can never be predictable.

Big Data and analytics, will not only help in understanding trends but also in predicting different models that help in designing solutions for their customers, be it a product, solution or services. Yet, data by itself won’t give a complete picture of human needs, fears, and how and why people will behave in a particular situation. By utilizing and employing human-centered design, the end-user will be the focal point of the complete innovation process.

Design Thinking phases are not sequential, we can go from prototyping to testing directly and vice versa, we can go back reviewing our assumptions and start over again to better understand user problems. Nevertheless, a good design thinking process should always begin with a complete immersion into the user experience by getting a deep understanding of their needs, frustrations, pain points, and opportunities.


Margaret Mead is an American cultural anthropologist who said and I quote.

What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

This is a proven fact that when people know that they are under the microscope, their behavioral patterns are different from what they normally do. Remember the time you wanted to look sharp and smart in school when the teacher just arrived. This emotion or action is called the “feeling of being watched”. Another example is well documented in this article denoting the way people behave differently when being observed.

In this exciting study by Bateson et al in 2006, an experiment was carried out. They kept two coffee machines where a note said donate at least 50 cents while you pour your coffee. However, it was though that paying for something that was already free will be a hassle. Therefore, the experiment took place where they added soft eyes to one of the machines. The result: 3 times more money was found in the jar where the machine was pasted with eyes.

“Being watched” influences the results of our analysis as normal actions are not being performed. I have been using traditional methods such as surveying hundreds of customers, focus groups, and analyzing data in different ways, to validate certain hypotheses or for identifying a trend but in most cases, they fell short when trying to innovate.

Therefore, to gain a deep understanding of human behavior, you must become an “ethnographer”. This means putting yourself in the shoes of customers in their natural environment rather than a stressed one where they need to act or not act at all. This is highly essential in understanding and empathizing with customer’s needs. By doing so, you can experiment with how creativity comes and flows. When you and the team put together this set of information while observing the customer. This discussion is the best source of innovative problem-solving ideas.

When I worked in the fast-moving consumer goods, I used to spend a lot of my afternoons in the supermarket aisles watching people take our products, especially when they went through the selection process between our and the competitor brand or alternative products. I took out the time to discuss with them and these conversations brought up the best of ideas for me and my team. It wasn’t a formal process but it was an effective one as it was a flawless way to gain user empathy and understand their needs. It also helped me in understanding data better along with translating it into real solutions.

Some of the most innovative ideas come once you observe and converse with the customer in their natural flow without any interruption or emotion of being watched.


Let us start with observation and how ethnographers use this trait to get the best user insights. One of the observational techniques mentioned by Professor Stefanos Zenios during the Stanford LEAD Design Thinking course is what he called “being a fly on the wall”. In this school of thought, you observe but do not interfere in the process. It is exactly what I did during my supermarket visits as I just looked but made myself as invisible as possible.

The purpose of observation is to gain empathy, gather user needs, uncovering workarounds, likes, and dislikes. “how are the people doing?” is the best question that can be answered to provide insights that will assist you in identifying your assumption areas and those that are near to reality. These areas where you may want to gather additional data that can be explored later during the user interviews.

Always remember to stay in the shadows as an observer. There is no need to ask questions to provide answers. The Q&A session is more an internal matter than and an external one. Therefore, ask yourself about the customer’s behavior and why these actions are being undertaken by a specific group of people. This will allow you to base your decisions on more concrete data/observations rather than assumptions.


One-on-one interviews are one of the most productive methods to connect with real users/potential customers which allows you access to insight into their thought process. Talking directly to the people you’re designing for, is the best way to understand needs, hopes, desires, and goals. Interviews also help you in gathering additional information that includes acceptance or rejection of assumptions you made in the planning phase.

Be sure you prepare your interview in advance as most of the work happens before the interviews by brainstorming with your team to generate the right set of questions. The sequence of questions is also important as creating a flow brings out the best information which allows you to gather the right data. The good and precise question is key, and for this purpose I recommend you check The Eight Rules of the Engage Club.

Read it carefully and be sure that you respect these rules and don’t fall into the traps.

In short, always remember to keep perspective while developing a questionnaire script. We just don’t want the good questions only but a good interview that brings about the desired results.

Pro Tip The most effective means of communication during an interview is the art of listening.

Why do we fail to be user-centric?

Using observation and interview techniques will enable us to empathize with users, yet we must be aware of the pitfalls when we struggle to reach our goal.

  1. I never discussed it with a customer. I know for some of us it is hard to believe but I have seen more than one intrapreneurs or entrepreneurs that have never spoken to a customer. I remember this woman working on a project for the last 5 years where she was convinced that her product was unique but when I asked her who are her customers, what they have said about her proposal, and when was the last time she discussed with one of them, her answer was “I don’t have any idea, I had never discussed with a customer”. I couldn’t hide my surprise. On the other side, it was quite simple to define the next step for her mentorship program.
  2. Long-held Assumptions. We don’t question our assumptions about what customers want and need. This one of the most common mistakes made by young startups which cannot be solved if we don’t question our hypothesis which led to the interpretation of the information differently. For more details, just have a look at the confirmation bias described in this article.
  3. We rush to solutions before we have conducted thorough research. As soon as we have the first sight of a customer reported problem or need, we jump to what we believe could be a solid conclusion without research or additional information under our belts. We go for solving the problem rather than understanding the root cause. Solving the root cause will solve multiple problems whereas solving one problem will only solve one person’s problem that may surface in another form in the future because you did not kill the root cause.
  4. We frame projects too narrowly. We usually are stuck on a single solution for all our customers/users. We usually are stuck on a single solution for all our customers/users. This narrows the solution providing the capacity of our project. This makes you miss more opportunities to learn and enhance user experience which provides a cutting edge to your solution over competitors that should lead to optimum customer experience.
  5. We ask biased questions Do you look for a glass of water early in the morning because you are thirsty? Leading questions like these are usually really easy to answer and don’t go deeper into the user needs. Therefore, it is important how you ask a particular question or complete line of questioning. If you ask a very specific question, you only receive one part of the answer where the user does not have room to add his or her own experience/input. This way you may never get to the root cause of the problem. In this example, you should ask the user to describe his experience early in the morning. Take a look at the rules of the engage club numbers 1, 2, and 6!

In a nutshell, learning from user experience is a vital part of the design thinking process. It is not only the brainstorming stage but also afterward when the user has used your product or services prototype and you go back to step one. You have connected to the user problems and empathy once before you launched and it is of extreme importance that you do the same after a regular interval so you have the right data set in your arsenal which you can use to further enhance with your product or services.

If you would like me to summarize this blog post, I will ask you to take two lessons from it regarding design thinking.

  1. Always put yourself in the customer’s shoes during the whole process, but be sure you empathize with the user as phase one
  2. Once your product or service is launched, do go back to your user to find flaws in your design thought process and correct your true north to attain additional success.

Keep following and share your thoughts about techniques and pitfalls of empathizing with users. Cheers!


References and Where to learn more

Design Thinking: From Insights to Viability course – Stanford LEAD by Professor Stefanos Zenios

d. School – Interviewing Skills

d. School – Introduction to Design Thinking


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