How The Empathic Design Method of Decision Making Works

4 min read

Empathic design is a product design method first developed by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport in The Harvard Business Review. The method outlines a five-step process for designing customer-focused products:

  1. Observation
  2. Capturing data
  3. Reflection and analysis
  4. Brainstorming for solutions
  5. Developing prototypes of possible solutions

The method is similar to that used by cultural anthropologists insofar as it avoids the traditional method of simply asking customers what they want or think by actually going to them to observe them in their natural habitat. In a way, it borrows from the likes of Jane Goodall and her extended observations of chimpanzees in their natural environment. In this case, however, it is consumers in their natural environment that are to be observed and learned from. Indeed, some companies have actually hired anthropologists for these observations.

This method removes many of the problems that traditional approaches such as surveys, focus groups and laboratory experiments have. Some of those problems include:

  • Respondents tendency to provide expected answers.
  • Respondents tendency to try to please the researchers or avoid being combative.
  • Researchers bias affecting responses.
  • Poorly worded questions.
  • Customers often don’t know what they want.
  • Customers can’t imagine what would fix a problem for them or even that they have a problem in the first place.

As Leonard and Sax put it,

“At its foundation is observation—watching consumers use products or services. But unlike in focus groups, usability laboratories, and other contexts of traditional market research, such observation is conducted in the customer’s own environment—in the course of normal, everyday routines. In such a context, researchers can gain access to a host of information that is not accessible through other observation-oriented research methods.” 

In a focus group, for example, a customer may say that a given product works just fine. But when observing that person in real life, one may notice that it’s very difficult to assemble, or that the customer has created a work-around to a given problem that takes extra time, or that many of the features are never used. There are an endless number of issues that may not even cross a consumer’s mind when they are simply asked about various products.

Leonard and Sax again note that, “…Customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution—even if they have real needs that could be addressed.”

Indeed, it should be noted that many products we commonly used today were not invented for their given purpose. Some examples include:

  • Post-It Notes: Inventor was originally trying to create and aerospace adhesive.
  • Bubble Wrap: Was actually intended as a wallpaper.
  • Rogaine: Was originally intended as a blood-pressure treatment.

On the other hand, some products looked good on paper, but never caught on because of a lack of consumer demand. The Segway is a good example of this. It was supposed to “revolutionize” walking. But had the designers spent more time with actual consumers, they would have likely found that few people considered walking to be a problem or concern. In the end, the Segway failed to find a market.

The Process

As noted above, the process is broken into five steps.

Step 1: Observation

In this step, it is critical to ask three questions:

  1. Who should be observed?
  2. Who should be observing?
  3. What should the observer be watching?

It is important to have more than one observer, preferably from different backgrounds. Different people will notice different things and you want any preconceived biases to be “cancelled out” by others with different perspectives.

Step 2: Capturing Data

It’s important to record the observations so that others can view it to bring a fresh perspective and those that originally observed the consumers can review and look for details they may have missed. In the field, observers should only ask open-ended questions such as “why are you doing that?” Observers should also look for actions and not reported behavior as people often misinterpret the reasons for their own behavior. And throughout, it’s critical to, as Mathiew Turpault put it, “Treat your users like product development partners throughout the process.”

Step 3: Reflection and Analysis

After the field observations are complete, the team should gather to reflect on what they saw with colleagues who did not participate. Those colleagues should then ask questions to facilitate a conversation. Throughout this conversation, the goal should be to understand what exactly it is that the customer wants and needs, even if the customer is unaware of those wants and needs.

Step 4: Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a very useful way of collecting a large number of ideas that wouldn’t have been thought of otherwise. The key is to do it without judging ideas as they come out. Just let the process flow and then evaluate and discuss the various ideas at the end. Leonard and Sax recommend IDEO’s five rules of brainstorming (which has since been updated to seven):

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on the topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Step 5:  Developing Prototypes of possible solutions

After the brainstormed ideas have been evaluated and a concept (or concepts) agreed upon, a prototype should be built. This prototype accomplishes three things according to Leonard and Sax:

  • “Prototypes clarify the concept of the new product or service for the development team.
  • “They enable the team to place its concept in front of other individuals who work in functions not formally represented on the team.
  • “They can stimulate reaction and foster discussion with potential customers of the innovation because of their concreteness.”

After another round of feedback, the prototype can be improved and upgraded or perhaps discarded. This process can continue until a final product is ready for market.


Leonard and Sax note many examples of Empathic Design being used successfully. One involves Kimberly Clark. After some of their representatives spent time with actual customers, they realized that a pull-up diaper was sought after by both parents and toddlers for its emotional appeal. Pull-up diapers were seen as a sign of growing up.

With the Empathic Design method, Cheerios realized that parents didn’t see their product primarily as a breakfast cereal but enjoyed the fact that it could be bagged and carried around. This was important for marketing purposes. Likewise, Japanese automakers have set up design studios in southern California where there are a large number of car enthusiasts who like making modifications to their cars. This has given these automakers a chance to observe them and get ideas for new features to add.

Downsides to Empathic Design

While there are many upsides to Empathic Design, there are some things to be cautious about. Taylor Higashi notes that “…Removed from entertainment and close personal relationships, such intimacy clouds our judgement when we attempt to make objective decisions.” Higashi references a study noted in C. Daniel Batson’s book Against Empathy where subjects were asked if they would move a terminally ill girl to the front of the line for treatment. When simply asked, they tended to not move her ahead of those who presumably were more in need. But when asked to imagine how she felt, they tended to move her up the list.

Sometimes, it’s better to be removed from a subject when evaluating it. That being said, this will generally only be a problem with regards to particularly emotional situations and problems.


The Empathic Design method is a great way to create customer-centered products that the customer actually wants or needs. Often people don’t even know what they want or need. Who would have thought to want the car? Or the television? Or the Internet? In most instances, observing consumers in their natural environment is a highly effective method to inspire ideas for how to better serve those consumers.

Andrew Syrios Andrew Syrios is a partner and co-founder of the real estate investment firm Stewardship Properties, which was named one of the 5000 fastest-growing private companies in 2018. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Business Administration and lives in Kansas City, MO.

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