What do feelings have to do with product design? As it turns out, a whole lot. Building empathy into the products we create is an essential part of our ethos, but what exactly does that mean?
In this piece from our team at Beyond Design, we’ll dive into what exactly empathy in product design looks like— and why it matters so much.
What is empathy in product design?
To understand empathy’s role in product design, it must be seen as more than just a thought experiment designed to boost creativity or make for an inspirational speech to your team about why your product matters.
At its best, empathy is the first and most important step in the process of creating a great product. Empathy is true understanding, the ability to imagine yourself in the shoes of your customers and feel what they feel. If you don’t understand the needs, fears, and frustrations your audience is experiencing, how can you ever hope to design a product that will meet them?
When it comes to how empathy affects our design process in more concrete ways, we consider the barriers that might exist between us, as product designers, and our target users for a product.
You might be the type of inventor who is seeking to fulfill a need you have experienced yourself. This is a common occurrence— someone with an entrepreneurial spirit notices a frustration in their life, they seek to create a solution, and then find that the solution has broader appeal than just themselves.
But what about the rest of us? You don’t have to be a parent of children to identify and meet a need for improved car seat design or a professional athlete to design a better running shoe. So how do you bridge that gap? Empathy, which helps you to put aside any assumptions about what you think your customers want, need, and feel and find out what they’re actually experiencing.
What is the best part of empathy in product design? It doesn’t just have to be made up of thought exercises and imagination. Empathy shouldn’t just inspire you to think about users wants and needs, it should inspire you to go out and learn about them. Ask questions of your target audience, follow them in action, use their existing solutions and discover for yourself why they fall short. Only by taking action based on empathy can you get the full picture necessary to design truly great products and experiences for your customers.
Why does building empathy into products matter?
The difference between a product created without empathy and one built on empathy can be subtle.
The former can result in a visually impressive product. It looks good to the naked eye, it’s made from quality materials, and if used as directed, it will eventually give users the end result they’re trying to achieve.
But what about the path they take to get there? Is using your product a pleasure? Does it fit seamlessly into the existing context of your user’s life?
Think of empathy in design as the difference between user success and user experience. A product designed without empathy might result in a successful user interaction, but their experience with the product may not be one that sparks joy.
To understand the difference, let’s look at what the research has to say.
Empathy research & product success
So, does starting from a place of empathy actually impact the way we design products for end users? Research suggests that it does. A recent study conducted by marketing professors at the University of Connecticut and University of Illinois showed that participants designed more creative products when instructed to start by taking a few minutes to envision how the end customer would feel when using the end product.
Other experiments appear to show the same results, including one that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research and involved designing a child’s toy. Like the first study, the group that spent time at the beginning of the project imagining the children’s feelings created the most original products as judged by a panel of experts in product design and marketing.
What does this mean for you and your design process? It means that beginning from a place of empathy doesn’t just sound nice or make for a great tagline on your website. It will actually result in you and your team developing more creative, effective, and lovable products— products that truly meet the concrete and emotional needs of your target audience.
Isn’t that the ultimate goal of product design in the first place?