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Empathic Design: As Close to the Holy Grail as You Can Get


Empathic Design: As Close to the Holy Grail as You Can Get

Do you have a “go to” song you sing when you are at a karaoke bar? How about a signature dish you like to prepare the first time a new visitor comes over for dinner?

Customer Experience Design Strategies

For me, my “go to” strategies for product development or experience innovation involve components from my “empathic design” toolkit. For fellow empathic designers, you know that there are a lot of tools available which help business owners and leaders “step into the shoes” of their “user” or “customer.”

For those who don’t work in product or experience design on a daily basis, you probably just want to have an overview on how to “build products and services from the customer perspective.” For a contextualized dive into this topic, I recommend a fairly recent Harvard Business Review Article titled 5 Ways to Design Products Customers Love. In that article, Dorothy Leonard details many empathic design strategies including:

  • User-designer
  • Ethnographic research
  • User simulation
  • Customer culture immersion, and
  • Cognitive artifacts

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll highlight each of the design strategies so you can get a feel for which of these tools might be right for you.


User-designer approaches involve looking for solutions by regularly using existing products to explore strengths, limitations, pain points, and opportunities. Many first generation products for entrepreneurs come from users who have an idea for a “better mousetrap.” As such a product users make a few modifications, produces a prototype of their solution, attracts the interest of possible future customers, and goes to market with the new and improved product offering. Dorothy cites the founder of the company Osprey as starting his company through a “user-designer” model:

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…

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research takes its origins from fieldwork in cultural anthropology. Anthropologists have sought to be minimally intrusive as they have observed the nuances of newly discovered cultures.

Ethnographic research in product and service creation takes many forms including “shop alongs” in retail – where a researcher joins a customer for a shopping expedition and inquires about elements of their experience in real time. It can also involve such things as “customer diaries” or “structured customer interviews.” Generally, the methodology has elements of either participant observation or interviewing key stakeholders.

User Simulation

User simulation is a technique that “role plays” a customer journey. For example, my team and I might audit an automobile shopping experience for a client like Mercedes-Benz “as if” we were going to purchase a vehicle. During the simulation, we look for pain points and opportunities for experience enhancement. When we deploy this technique we frequently simulate multiple buyers across all core buyer segments.

User simulation differs from “secret shopping” in that secret shopping typically is a service assessment process where quasi-objective secret shoppers are looking for the presence of key service elements for which team members have been trained to deliver.

Related: How Much of an Impact Does Employee Engagement Really Have on Performance and Results?

Customer Culture Immersion

Customer culture immersion involves embedding yourself in a community of product users to understand what they think and value so that you can begin to shape products and services from their worldview. You can think of this like a reporter who “embeds” with a military unit gaining a different perspective on the military conflict than one who reports from outside the battle lines.

Cognitive Artifacts

Finally and very simplistically “cognitive artifacts” are the mental models people use to organize and process information. You can think about cognitive artifacts as they way people “label” files in their mental filing system. We all organize complex and diverse information in ways that link to personal high-value keywords and that help us makes sense of the world around us. You can imagine that if the designer was asked to develop an information technology system just for you, they would benefit from understanding your internal organizing processes. A wide variety of tools exist to cull for the cognitive artifacts of consumers so we can design around their cognitive organizing principles.

The Forest Not the Trees

Ok enough of this somewhat academic treatise on “empathic design!” Irrespective of the tool you choose from the empathic design toolkit, the underlying principle that should guide your activity is captured in the following quote from graphic designer Joshua Brewer:

“Socrates said ‘Know thyself.’ I say, ‘Know thy users.” And guess what? They don’t think like you do.”

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