Can We Design Without Empathizing?

Posted on  12 September, 2019

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” – John Steinbeck.

And you can only design great solutions if you understand people well !!

Empathy in Design Thinking

The term ‘Understand’ is perceived as shallow in the practice while the term ‘Empathy’ suggests understanding people from multiple layers and lenses. Don Norman is one of the pioneers in the industry who introduced the concept of empathy to big scale entrepreneurs which has been institutionalized into a framework of Design Thinking by Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. By definition – Empathy is the “capacity” to share and understand another’s “state of mind” or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”, or in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. — Ioannidou F.

Empathy in Design Thinking

Empathy involves asking ‘WHY’ while designing;  Researchers & designers conduct workshops with clients and study users to identify the needs & challenges by empathizing with them which were not articulated by the stakeholders before. As a people skill, empathy helps in understanding – how the stakeholders & users perceive any problem within the context, how they feel about it and react in different situations. There are different approaches to generate requirements in various product development methods – agile, lean startup, waterfall, scrum, etc. One of the approaches that Lollypop team believes in is – Human Centred Design (HCD) Thinking, where we empathize with the users & stakeholders to address any problem-solution.

To practice empathy or not?

To practice empathy or not?

The buzzword ‘empathy’ has gone viral in the design industry for a while now and is often portrayed as a basic requirement for designers. When Don Norman, published his article “Why I Don’t Believe in Empathic Design”, it is not surprising that the world went psychotic as he was the one who had introduced the concept. In this blog, we are reflecting on what Don Norman has stated in his article. We will try to break down and understand Don Norman’s article and see what role empathy plays in today’s design context, or if it is needed at all.

In his article, Don Norman states that he doesn’t believe in empathetic design anymore. He illustrates his argument by pointing out that designers in Bangalore do not necessarily understand the users in Rural India any more than designers in the San Francisco Bay. Our experience with designing in India would seem to validate his argument as well.

He says that he doesn’t believe in empathetic design anymore because he feels it is not useful to understand every individual’s personality while creating a product that has a large number of users.

Before we jump into further decoding this article, let us digress a little bit to understand how design functions with regards to context. In the seminal paper ‘Design research and the new learning’, Richard Buchanan defines the approach to design varies based on context.

approach to design varies

The above diagram illustrates the various concerns that the design tries to address from the perspectives of outcomes. The first order of design (lower side) is communication with symbols and images. The second order of design is the design of artifacts as in engineering, architecture, and mass production. While the third order is designing interactions; it may entail processes, activities, or any sort of interaction. Finally, the fourth-order of design is the design of the environments and systems within which all the other orders of design exist.


“In my current work, I’m trying to look at different kinds of problems — the major issues that societies are facing in the world, like hunger, education, health, and security.”

This is one sentence that we do wish Norman had spent a bit more time explaining in his article. Here he is referring to the context that he is designing for – ‘the social transformation design context’. This directly decodes that he is speaking about the fourth-order of design from the above image.

There are fundamental differences in designing for the fourth-order (Social transformation) and designing for the third-order (Product design). Let’s try and understand these differences:

Societal Context

So he says – “We’re proposing to combine experts and community workers. Instead of recommending solutions, experts should be facilitators, guides, and mentors. We need an approach that’s top-down, expert knowledge, and bottom-up, the community people. This method will have to differ from community to community around the world.”

Societal Context

Designing for social transformation requires a combination of “expert knowledge” or design knowledge and “community knowledge”. This is because social transformation design requires solutions that are robust and capable of evolving organically.  Here the designer must recognize that they are an external agent and behave accordingly. The traditional human-centered design process is too intrusive and simplistic to solve problems at this scale. In this scenario, the designer acts as a “catalyst” as opposed to the solution provider which is the case in product design.

Product Context

A product solves a problem that is specific to the needs of the users. The features are packaged in a way that caters to a specific issue. Addressing these issues needs an empathetic mindset to understand the challenges faced by the target users and their motivations.

As Don Norman said ‘HCD approach works fairly well in product context because it focuses on finding real issues and needs of the specific target segment. The process of practicing empathy helps in understanding their likes and dislikes and helps to curate the product in a way that’s to their needs.

Product Context

In the context of product design, there are various methods & techniques that can help in practicing empathy. Research methods like shadowing, interviewing, focus groups help in getting into the psyche of the users, learn their habits, and behaviors. These methods are utilized based on context and the objective of the research.

  • These research methods play a huge role in finding behavioral patterns of people, which can also help in addressing how do they perceive a particular problem and react towards it.
  • The data gathered is identified & visualized into different patterns of information. These patterns help us to create personas and target segments that further define the requirements of the product.
  • In the process of identifying patterns, there are chances that we come across exceptions. The identified patterns and exceptions together may help in arriving at insights to be used for designing the product.


We truly hope that this piece has helped unearth the air around the Don Norman speech and gave clarity of thoughts. However, we would just like to end with a question; we truly believe that empathy is something that’s very hard to practice and no one can ever truly become one with someone’s distress. What we do believe is compassionate design; an approach that allows us to feel for another human being with an intention to help.