What is Creative Empathy and How Can it be Applied to Product Design?

Product designers work across all industries, creating physical and digital objects for users to enjoy. Through their work, designers are able to find innovative solutions to solve people’s problems and analyze a person’s experience with a particular product. However, product designers don’t usually work alone. Actually, many work on product development teams, gathering data and designing products under a specific brand’s direction. So, how do product designers work with other design thinkers to complete creative projects? They use creative empathy, of course! If you’re not sure what that means, that’s okay! Just keep reading. We’ll review creative empathy and its role in product design below. 

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What is Creative Empathy?

“…creative empathy is the art and practice of embracing the objective and subjective thoughts and actions of a team to arrive at the best possible creative solution while instilling as much objectivity and shared ownership as possible.”

– Matt Owen, Design’s Secret Weapon: Creative Empathy, UX Collective

Creative professions, like product design, require innovative and imaginative people who know how to practice empathy. But, why is important, you ask? Well, honing one’s ability to see things from another’s perspective can provide valuable insights throughout the creative process – especially when working on a team. 

Remember, everyone you meet (and work with) has preconceived ideas, morals, values, experiences, and knowledge that may differ from your own. However, as a designer, you can practice creative empathy to gain a deeper understanding of that person’s journey and how they interact with products. 

“The role of the designer is that of a good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” 

– Charles Eames, American Designer, Architect & Filmmaker

Product designers who practice creative empathy, even when acting as creative directors on a project, are able to gain tacit knowledge, discover hidden communication gaps, and put themselves in a user’s shoes. 

a business woman in a yellow sweater sits on the edge of a conference table that is surrounded by six other professionals

The Importance of Empathy in Design

“Empathize to discover people’s expressed and latent needs so you can meet them through your design solutions.”

– Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, Empathy FieldGuide

Some folks may wonder how incorporating empathy into a design process can make you a better designer. However, we implore you to think about it for a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

  • If a designer does not develop empathy, how can they image or analyze an end user’s impression of a product?
  • Without the ability to be empathetic, how can a product designer collaborate effectively with other professionals? 
  • Will a product designer be able to tailor their product for extreme users, without first incorporating empathy into their design process?

Empathy is important in design because it allows designers to examine how others feel about a product that is in development. For instance, by employing creative empathy, designers can start to understand the pain points of a project, as well as other people’s objectives during collaborative internal meetings or conversations with clients. 

Incorporating Empathy in Human-Centered Design

While many empathy techniques center on the user’s experience, it is important to remember that creative empathy doesn’t have to be limited to user research. In fact, empathy can also be used to understand people’s objectives – which comes in handy when collaborating with other creative professionals on a product development team. 

“We talk about improving the quality of the product all the time. In product design, we do observations, interviews, and other means to create the best product… We can use empathy as a gateway to communicate with clients, co-workers, and the users.”

– Muditha Batagoda, Empathy and Product Design, UX Planet

creative professionals meet to discuss a product design that is in development

3 Practical Creative Empathy Techniques to Try

Do you need help incorporating empathy into your design thinking process? One way to empathize with your end user is to immerse yourself in the user experience by testing the product. Other techniques can include observing users or conducting interviews to get a better understanding of how the product can best serve the intended audience. Here are 3 other creative empathy techniques you can try as you develop your product.

Ask users to document their experience with a product.

Want an alternative to observing your product’s users? While observation is a practical technique to employ, it is not always feasible. In lieu of an observation, consider asking end users to document their experience using a physical diary or digital journal. 

Create character maps to better understand internal motivators and obstacles the user may encounter.

Many creative professionals are familiar with the concept of character mapping – or assigning personas to fictitious end users. While conducting empathic research, it might help to do a bit of character mapping to dig deeper into your potential customers. Use quantitative research findings to support your ideas about the desired customer’s traits. If you’re not sure where to begin, ask yourself the following questions to get started:

  • What age is this product intended for?
  • What occupation do most users of these products have?
  • What is the average income of someone who would own this product?
  • What challenges would this product present to this particular person? What problems would it solve for them?

Design prototypes to test products internally or in focus groups.

If it’s possible (and within budget limitations) create a prototype of your product. Prototyping can help you, the product development team, and key stakeholders get an idea of how the product will function in someone’s actual life. Prototyping also exposes the possible pain points your team may encounter when producing the final product – which can be helpful to everyone involved in the design process! 

In a nutshell, prototyping is one way to yield valuable insights that can help you align your ideas with colleagues and assist you in establishing a connection with your end-user when the product hits the market.