Creating with Empathy

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6 min

Human life is riddled with needs, both tangible and intangible. As at the time of this writing, the world ‘needs’ to stay protected from the nouveau coronavirus while we pray for a vaccine.

The insatiability and persistence of human needs and wants are at its very core the sole reason design should thrive.

‘‘Human as beings of workers and wanters, born of labour and desires.’’ (Regenia Gagnier, 1988)

Technology has presented us with great possibilities but not without its limitations. In fact, without proper design, technology can be more of a problem than a solution. This is called the Paradox of Technology.

Design is where creativity and technology meet and where innovation thrives. It is what makes technology human friendly.

Designers have the power to really impact the world in which we live!

‘‘The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology.’’ (Donald Norman, 1988)

Design is everywhere from the doorknobs we hold to the face masks we put on; from the cars we drive to the chairs we sit. However, design can’t exist without the people(users).

Once you truly understand the relationship between product and user, the market is your oyster. But how exactly do you get around understanding this complex relationship? Well, The answer is Empathy.

Empathy is the true and unselfish understanding of how someone else feels. It is the ability to see the world through the lens of others.

Think about the last time you went shopping for a new phone, how you decided to go with this one instead of the other phones of far lesser prices. Logically, a less pricey phone will save you money, but there was an emotional override in the guise of perception causing a myriad of internal monologues; ‘how will I be perceived if I am seen using this phone?’, ‘How will I feel about myself?’, ‘’will I be envied?’’ or ‘’will my taste be questioned?’’

This internal monologue is an offshoot of our emotional triggers which ultimately influence what we purchase or acquire. Rationalising the things we should buy or not is a constant subconscious debate between the ‘logical’ and ‘emotional’. Interestingly, research has shown that ‘emotions’ mostly wins.

Therefore, as creators, we design to sell emotions and then give the users the words to back it up.

While the logical reasoning outlines the problems that acquiring ‘want’ will either solve or create, the emotion justifies how acquiring that ‘want’ will make us feel better or not about ourselves.

In communication and advertising, information alone doesn’t incite action, emotion does! That is why automobile and other soft good brands like in the fashion industry always advertise their products using emotionally appealing imageries showcasing beautiful, sexy ladies with ‘your’ dream body, men with well-chiseled abs, accomplished fathers, and pretty mothers with happy families for commercials. They know that these are our silent dreams and aspirations. They make these products literally like the answer to all our problems and promise us a happily ever after ending!…even though the prices are outrageous!


There’s however a thin line between empathy and manipulation! Look at this hilarious Apple commercial parody. Here ROB, voices what many think of apple and their products…

The ultimate job of a designer is to trigger emotions to incite the desired action. The designer must, therefore, create with Empathy.

To design with empathy, one must understand the emotional triggers of the target audience/user.

What excites them? what makes them sad? what gives their life meaning?

The process of discovering these emotions is outlined in the following steps.

i. Research: Learn all you can about who you intend to sell to.

ii. Immersion: Ensure to walk in the shoes of your target user to get the richest empathic experience. This process is called Bodystorming or Role-playing.

                               Bodystorming Exercise. Designing experience for autonomous vehicles by Jeremy Bass

iii. Detachment: Abandon your ego. Put yourself and your point of view aside when creating a product/design and put the user’s need first!

Having discovered the emotional triggers of the target user, a designer must be clear on the response he elicits from this user before designing.

According to Don Norman, there are three different levels of responses that a design/product can evoke. They are the Visceral, Behavioural, and Reflective responses.

Visceral Response: This is the first instinctive reaction or impression a user feels when in contact with a new product. It is mostly a subconscious process beyond the user’s cognitive control. It is a function of the aesthetics of that product design. This can be observed in the immediate reaction of the observer. Does the observer/user become enraged in anger or do his eyes widen in the excitement? There are some universal design principles applied to appeal to the visceral level of human emotions. Some of these are colour effects, like; Red Effect, Black Effect, and the White Effect. Ever wondered why ladies use glossy red lipstick when going for a date? Or why high-class premium products come in black? These are cognitive and behavioural effects triggered by certain colours.

Here are some rules of thumb when using these colours.

Red Effect:

a. Ladies can use red to increase their attractiveness. You can hardly go wrong with a beautiful red dress.

b. Using a red-coloured tie when going for a pitch or an interview resonates confidence and strength.

c. Use red to gain an edge in an equally matched contest. Red costumes or jersey makes can make you look intimidating to your opponent.

d. Red depreciated mental processing, so avoid using red to paint a study

Black Effect:

a. Use black colour to suggest sophistication and superior quality

b. Use black to depict evil and foreboding

c. Express aggression using black. Ever heard of the black dog syndrome?

White Effect:

a. Use white to signify approachability and peace

b. Use white when you don’t know what colour to use. White will hardly ever fail you!

c. Use white to show your simplicity. White signifies minimalism

Enough with visceral emotional triggers, lets talk about Behavioural response.

Behavioural Response: This is what happens as a result of the user’s interaction with the product. What was the quality of the experience after they used the product? Was it a pleasurable or frustrating product to use?

Reflective Response: Of all the responses, this is the only response well within the conscious ‘will’ of the user. Reflective response answers to long term perception of the product or design or how it influences the users’ the self-valuation of themselves. Can they tell stories about this product?

Here is an analogy showing the different levels of emotional responses for a tangle product.


When an observer encounters a product, the senses inputs the information straight to the brain for processing. A part of the brain called the Amygdala involved in processing emotions picks up this input and interprets it for the Visceral response of beauty, joy, anger, and other emotions. This is the first emotional response. The visceral response is responsible for how you feel at that instance. You can call it the temporal response. Having been attracted or repelled from this product as the case may be, the observer then becomes a user who adopts and interacts with the product. The quality of this interaction is what determines the Behavioural response. How efficiently did this product perform? Did it frustrate or excite the user? Behavioural responses are the emotions we feel after accomplishing or failing to accomplish a task with product. If this product works so well that it becomes an integral part of the users’ lives, so much that it empowers, the user becomes what is referred to in Psycho-aesthetics as a Heroic Evangelist, declaring the good news of that product. This is the highest level of emotional response, it is called the Reflective response.

Raising Heroic evangelists should be the ultimate goal of designers and businesses at large. These days brands try to compromise or hack it by contracting the job to media influencers.

In conclusion, empathy shouldn’t be just a tool we use to acquire insights alone, it should be a thread woven into everything we do as creators and solution providers. It should be a lifestyle. For without it, we wouldn’t be able to discover the unspoken needs of people.

Did you know that design-driven businesses significantly outperform their competitors?

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