Get By with a Little Help from Empathy: Design Thinking Part 1

Feeding Squirrel Empathy in Design Thinking Concept

What Is Design Thinking?


“Design thinking is about believing we can make a difference and having an intentional process in order to get to new, relevant solutions that create positive impact.”



It is not a magic bullet.  It is not the only approach to problem solving.  Instead, design thinking is simply another tool in our toolbox that helps us keep the user front of mind and practice empathy throughout the entire development process.

In order to achieve ultimate user satisfaction, we must understand their needs, even if the users can’t communicate them.  This is where design thinking excels.  The very first stage of the design thinking process, empathy, is about gaining a deeper understanding of our users and the environment in which they live, work, or play.  At this stage, we are detectives working to extract information about unmet needs.  Once we identify those needs and start to define loose borders of scope, we can begin to ideate around them, and finally prototype and test those ideas.  This is an overly simplified description, of course, so in this article we’ll focus on building empathy.

Design thinking attempts to break us out of the cycle of immediately providing a solution without truly understanding the user’s needs.  The great thing about this approach is that it can apply to many disciplines, so if you’re in Marketing, Sales, HR or in an Executive role, think about how to apply this to the challenges on your plate.

Below, we will discuss how practicing empathy contributes to achieving a great user experience and we will use dashboard development as an example.

What Is a Dashboard?

design thinking empathy dashboard concept

A dashboard is a tool that helps us visualize information in a meaningful way and enables us to quickly make critical, informed decisions.

When looking at dashboard examples, to many it appears they follow a simple design recipe:

  1. Acquire 1 cup of user requirements
  2. Sift a bucket of data
  3. Apply data to cool charts
  4. Sprinkle in a handful of colors
  5. Spread items evenly across screen
  6. Garnish aggressively with logos, icons, and images

However, it is notoriously difficult to design a dashboard that delivers a great user experience, meaning it performs strongly across the categories of look, usability, and feel.

The Users

design thinking empathy different users shoes concept

You can’t spell Usability without User (don’t think about that too long).

We’re here to provide value to the user and ultimately the business.  A project typically starts with our users or project stakeholders delivering a list of requirements:

  • Must display these key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Must include these sections
  • Must be formatted this way
  • Other similar priorities

It resembles our recipe above.  This is a good starting point not for development, but for the conversations that must occur in order to understand the context behind these requests. In order to satisfy the user’s needs, we must dig deeper by asking questions:

  • Who/What is driving this dashboard request?
  • Who will use those KPIs?
  • Why those particular KPIs?
  • What will we do with that information?
  • How does the information relate to the larger business goals and strategies?
  • How do users currently work with the information?

Now, we could just ask these questions via a survey or quick interviews, but those methods don’t reach the level of empathy required to truly deliver a great experience.

Developing Empathy

“To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.”

– Stanford

Great quote, but how do you accomplish that?  Well, you have to understand the context in which the users will be interacting with your dashboard.  Anyone who has ever tried to help someone resolve a computer issue over the phone understands that there is often a disconnect between what the user is requesting and what the user needs as well as a difference between what the user says they are doing and what is actually happening.

We need to observe users as they work in their current environment. Ethnographic research, the study of human behavior in its most natural and typical context , helps reveal hidden influencers of behavior (environment, personal bias, other users, tools, processes, etc.) by giving you a first-hand understanding of the user’s world.

Asking a user to describe the issue, as in our example above, often causes us to miss important clues because the user a) does not know why they did it, b) doesn’t deem it as important, or c) simply forgets. This is a real benefit we can provide to our users: leveraging real, personal connections that cannot be duplicated over the phone or off-shore.

Spend time observing your users and seeing how they work. What processes do they follow? What does the work environment look like? Pretend it’s a job shadow and have them walk you through their daily motions. Do this with each person or persona that may interact with your end product to ensure you’re covering all perspectives.

As you observe, your most powerful tool is asking the user “why”. This requires soft skills, because your tone will most definitely influence the response you receive.

Why DID you do THAT?!

design thinking empathy shocked upset face


Why did you do that?

design thinking empathy calm questioning face

Regularly asking why is important, and the answers you get may surprise you (and the user). In fact, these unexpected turns in conversation can lead you down paths that completely change the project’s focus/scope. This is where innovation happens!

Ethnographic research is only one of many tools for understanding your users in a more meaningful way. Another option is to jump into the driver’s seat and go through the experience yourself. This type of research is called Experiential research.

So What?

I know a lot of you are probably thinking “yes, this all makes sense, but it will add time to our process.” You’re right, most likely it will add time, but spending the time up-front ensures we’re working towards solving the right problems the right way and ultimately saves time and money by avoiding costly re-work farther down the development path.

How many times have you created a dashboard, report, or any type of work that satisfies the original “requirements” and then it never gets used? This happens for a few reasons, but most likely it didn’t satisfy the user’s needs, even though it met their requirements.

As you perform this research, you can directly apply it to your work on dashboard design.  An important first question is “Do the original requirements still deliver against the user’s needs?”  If the answer is no, it’s a good thing we haven’t started ideating or prototyping yet! This starting point of course leads to a variety of other questions that yield valuable insights into the users you’re working with:

  • If the requirements still match the user needs, what have you learned about your users, their environment, their current tools, etc. that may impact how you lay out the dashboard?
  • What about the flow through the dashboard?  Does it match their current process and/or does it naturally walk them from business case to supporting metrics and help drive action?
  • How will your design help prevent users from performing any manual post-processing?

All of this work lays the foundation for traditional UI and UX development. After all, who cares how nice the mansion is if it’s resting on a swamp? Your only goals during the empathy phase are to ensure you’ve identified the user’s needs and can relate them to the requirements for business success. You do that by caring about the people you’re trying to help. You do that by walking in their shoes. You do that by working towards and believing in a positive outcome.

Want more? Check out Aimee Carvalho’s Dashboard Design DL for some easy, applicable tips on delivering analyses that resonate with users.

experience design team page link



About Ironside

Ironside was founded in 1999 as an enterprise data and analytics solution provider and system integrator. Our clients hire us to acquire, enrich and measure their data so they can make smarter, better decisions about their business. No matter your industry or specific business challenges, Ironside has the experience, perspective and agility to help transform your analytic environment.