Design thinking starts with empathy—what happens next?

Design thinking is a framework for innovation, a fundamental mindset, and a tool for simplicity and humanity. Even if the name is somewhat new, design thinking has been here for a long time, and it starts with empathy.

Fidel Chaves
5 min read

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a framework, a fundamental mindset. It has been defined as a unified framework for innovation or the essential tool for simplifying and humanizing. It is a way of assessing how to solve problems, shifting the standpoint to help people by understanding their issues. This way of thinking has been evolving since the 1960s, building its foundations with bricks from creative fields, computer, and social sciences.


Design thinking is an umbrella term. It includes human-centered multi-disciplinary projects involving quick ideation and research. How designers work and think has been studied since the 1980s, at least. Researchers took note of the optimal conditions, habits, and mindsets of designers.


Since design thinking started being taught at schools, some structures or step-by-step guides have been created. The process will typically be laid out as follows:


Empathize: understanding the problems the people have


Define the problem: defining the issue more concretely


Ideate: coming up with multiple solutions


Prototype: creating a range of possible solutions


Test: testing solutions with real people


While taking these into account, design thinking is not a cookbook. Even if it has a given structure and is usually presented in these steps, it cannot be followed mechanically to obtain results. We have talked about other parts of it on this blog, but we still have the first step to review. Empathy is kind of a buzzword these days, but what does it mean? And how does it apply to design?

Why does design thinking start with empathy?

Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware, and sensitive to the experience and feelings of others, even if these were not communicated explicitly. For us, empathy is the kernel of a successful design process. The involvement of your team with the human beings they design for is what ultimately determines the quality of the product.


Design always serves someone. The thing is, that service might sometimes be bad, pretty bad. This dissonance between proper use and perceived use can negatively affect the person who needs to use your product. An object that looks ugly, feels clunky, or causes accidents through misuse, is an obvious example of having forgotten what people want and need. It is a way of showing that the designer did not put themselves in the other person's shoes.


When building on empathy, designers get the ability to think differently and see through somebody else's eyes. If you want to create products that please and facilitate the life of others, the first step is understanding their needs and likes. Empathy is not something you can advertise with a cool label on the packaging: Now with 20% extra empathy. It has to be the cornerstone of your project, the well from where you get your ideas. That is why it is considered the starting point of any project.


Empathizing requires you to leave your assumptions behind; you are not designing just for yourself. It is common for us to think that most people think, feel and act in the same ways we do, but that is simply not true. Epoché is a Greek term that incites us to suspend judgment and withhold assessment. It is helpful with daily prejudices; but essential in human-centered design.


How do you do this? You start asking questions, not putting answers forward. This is the step where you humble yourself, take a pen and paper, and go classic talk “Tell me your problems.” Gathering information from actual human beings is the way to go, not only imagining what they would do; or creating different personas. Asking them is fine. You have to listen, not judge.

Emotional design

Emotional design is not only a concept but a book. Who wrote it? Don Norman once more. The author explains that people are influenced by emotions when processing information and decision-making and how an emotional connection with the object can change our appeal and efficiency perception.


Norman states that good design should address three dimensions: the visceral, the behavioral, and the reflective. The idea is to create a product that should evoke an emotion when the user is using it. Emotional design is a necessary consideration when taking a human-first approach to design.

Human first

In his other book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman raises the issue of forgetting the human beings that will use the objects that designers create. The classic example is the Norman door. A door that, because of the design of its handle, gives a wrong usability signal. I am talking about the ones you pull when you should be pushing. In these cases, special signage appears to clarify how they work. When a door needs an instruction manual, you know it's not human-first design.


These situations create a great deal of frustration on those who live in a non human-first designed environment. There is usually no reason why these designs should persist. The aesthetic choice is a shallow one if it loses sight of function, yet we still run into these absurd designs in our everyday life, be it physical or digital. That is why a human-first design is crucial to make the lives of human beings easier.


This task is not a hundred percent about simplicity but understanding the need for complex design in a complex world. Sometimes simple is not sufficient. In yet another book, Living with Complexity, Don Norman puts it clearly. “It’s not complexity that’s the problem, it’s bad design. [...] Good design can tame complexity”


At Awkbit, we understand that good design thinking starts with empathy. That is why we regularly check our site for a seamless user interface that delivers accurate writing, understandable architecture, and enticing visuals. We want the human being on the other side of the screen to feel welcomed and guided—a must for each of our products. Do you have any issues coming up with a more people-oriented design? Get in touch!

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Sources & further reading