An analysis of designer empathy in the early phases of design projects
Editor: Ekströmer, Philip; Schütte, Simon and Ölvander, Johan
Author: Surma-Aho, Antti; Björklund, Tua; Hölttä-Otto, Katja
Institution: Aalto University Design Factory
User-centered design attempts to create innovation by understanding and answering the needs of users, a process in which the importance of empathy is increasingly highlighted. To formalize the concept of empathizing with users in design, recent research has uncovered various empathic techniques that designers employ throughout their projects, including not only early need finding activities, but also the empathic formulation of design criteria and concepts. By observing the design review sessions of 4 novice design teams throughout 9-month design projects, this study attempted to show the prevalence and development of empathy in the user-centered design process. The work of the teams was divided into three phases: concept development, system-level design, and detail design. A thematic analysis of 20 design review sessions revealed distinct ways in which the novice designers considered the perspectives of their end-users in these phases, primarily including goals for interacting with users, descriptions of the users and their actions, making generalizations based on those descriptions, and finally transferring them into design requirements and features. The number of excerpts tagged in each of the three project phases showed that, quantitatively, empathy was more prominent during concept development and system-level design than in detail design. However, during detail design the novice designers focused more on referencing earlier user interactions and insights as well as realizing the final concept prototype. These results extend the current understanding of empathy in real-life design projects by showing differences in its use in user-centered design projects. More research with larger amounts of data and triangulated methods is required to produce generalizable conclusions.