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The Importance of Empathy

Empathy is the first stage of the Design Thinking process and it is critical in laying a solid foundation. Watch Margi Moore explain more.
Hi, everyone. I’m Maggie, and I work in the design factory with Aidan. Today I’m going to chat about the empathy stage, or as some people call it, the discovery stage. It’s the stage where we look to understand as much as we can about the challenge or the dilemma or the issue that you’ve identified. This stage is really to help us understand the context of that challenge and who we are designing a solution for. We want to know how people think and feel and how they’re going to act. We ask lots of questions in different ways using a range of tools and strategies. We might ask who are the users? Who are the stakeholders? What are their needs?
And what are their expectations? What motivates them? And what are their aspirations? And what might change for them if you create a solution for them? We get them to describe their journey and their experience. We can use a range of different approaches during this stage. Structured interviews, empathy interviews, focus groups, surveys, face-to-face interviews. You might have a site visit. You might do things like really immerse yourself in the challenge and spend time making observations. Remember this stage is about collection and discovery. So collecting this data, we try to do it in a really broad way. We might collect factual data, information from journals and books and from online, and primary and secondary research.
Of particular interest to us is the context. Being aware of all the contributing factors that link to your challenge and really getting the big picture. What are those surrounding conditions? You might consider things like the economic or the environmental aspects of your challenge. What are the uncertainties? What are the rules and regulations that are affecting your challenge? What are your customer needs? This can be both a fun and enlightening stage, where you discover how people feel about the challenge. And now you’re in a really good position to move on to the define stage. For this course, we’re going to get you to use a tool called empathy interviewing, but I’ll leave Aidan to explain more about this.
Enjoy your research, and enjoy chatting to people as you get ready for the next stage. Ka kite ano.

Empathy is the first stage of the Design Thinking process and helps us to understand the context of our challenge and who we are designing for.

We value empathy because

  • This stage helps us identify those that are effected by the challenge or are associated with the challenge in any way.
  • Empathy uncovers the users needs and expectations.
  • Empathy allows us to understand user motivations and aspirations.
  • Empathy describes peoples journeys and experiences.
  • Empathy allows us to understand the context the challenge exists in.

There are many ways to collect this data:

  • We can research secondary sources of information such as journals, books and newspapers (and anything else).
  • We can do observations either of processes, or people interacting with places.
  • We can use structured empathy interviews.
  • We could interview a group or run a focus group.
  • We can use e-mails, written interviews or surveys (note: While this gathers data, the emotion tends to go missing).

We’ll focus on Empathy interviews as a means of gathering data for our challenge which is coming up in the next step!


Listen to Margi Moore, our Design Factory New Zealand Director talk about the Empathy stage and the value this stage brings to our projects.

No need to post a comment this time, just make a mental note of the challenges as you see them.

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Design Thinking for Sustainable Development

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