As a teenager, Mike Pfotenhauer loved to hike, but he hated how uncomfortable he felt carrying the backpacks then on the market. So, at age 16, he created his own, sewing all the pieces together himself. He went on to design and deliver customized outdoor equipment to clients who’d heard of him through the grapevine, and eventually he founded Osprey, a company that designs and manufactures all kinds of specialty bags and packs, with user-friendly features such as body-hugging contours, a top “lid” flap that converts into a spacious day pack, and a magnetic connector to secure the drinking tube from the built-in water reservoir.
This story exemplifies one type of empathic design, namely by a user-designer who combines deep knowledge of product use with the ability to foresee new possibilities for it. Another well-documented way to achieve the same outcome is through ethnographic research — surveying and studying the behavior of potential or actual users — which design companies such as IDEO have used to great effect in projects as various as coasting bicycles to redesigning patient experience at Kaiser Permanente.
However, in a recent study of a number of architectural firms, I found that there are three additional ways, employed less often, of achieving empathic design.
One of these approaches is to temporarily adopt the role of a user. For example, a designer who wanted to understand patient and family experience in a hospital emergency room feigned an injury. One result of her acting debut was that she identified the need to redesign the way that the nurses conducted triage, that is, deciding who needed immediate attention and who could wait. Many teaching hospitals hire people to simulate patients in a similar way. Although the intention is more to educate future doctors than to change processes, such simulations can offer insights rich in suggestions for improvements, such as additional questions that should be a routine part of the doctors’ diagnostic inquiries.
Another avenue to empathic design is immersion in the culture of the customer or client, so as to look at the challenge through a different lens and intuit unarticulated desires. For example, when a top architect at architectural/engineering firm HGA was assigned to help make a pitch for a synagogue project, she immediately started to study Jewish culture — although she was Catholic — starting with Judaism for Dummies and moving on to more intellectual books. By the time she was interviewed by the clients, she was so up to speed on the religion that they suggested, only half-jokingly, that she could teach Hebrew school. Recognizing Judaism’s strong emphasis on stewardship of the earth, she suggested a feature the clients (and competitors) had not considered: a small garden to be used for certain ceremonies. Her firm won the business.
A final way to achieve empathic design is through a cognitive artifact that may parallel or enhance a physical prototype. Just as drawings and models tap into users’ imagination and uncover latent desires, so too can an evocative metaphor or analogy. For example, when architectural/engineering firm SMMA was tasked with designing a “maker space” that would encourage collaboration, a free flow of ideas, and flexible work areas, and that would fit naturally into the rural environment, the design director suggested a tobacco curing barn as a conceptual archetype. Such structures are both tied to the land and built for an intended process, including directing and adapting to different air flows, with almost porous siding and adaptable interior spaces. By inviting everyone to brainstorm about features that would mimic or differ from this archetype, SMMA came with a more innovative, empathic, user-friendly design.
What all five of these modes of empathic design have in common is:
- An emphasis on seeking out unarticulated needs and desires so as to get the job done — whatever that job may be — creatively
- Looking at the world through the eyes of the customer. Of course, there are often different sets of users, whose priorities differ and must be negotiated into some overall compromise.
- An emotional connection between design and its users. By definition, empathy includes emotion — a connection beyond satisfaction with the operational.
The backpack, the coasting bicycle, the emergency room, the synagogue, the maker space — all are examples of empathic design. But their designers used different strategies to get into the minds of the clients and ultimately the users.
Published on 08.11.2017 on Harvard Business Review
Author Dorothy Leonard