Customer Empathy-Led Design and the Powerful Products That Emerge

…end-users needs. There are tons of successful empathy led designs that perfectly illustrate the importance of empathy, including PepsiCo, Nike, Nordstrom, Uber, and IBM. The key to empathy is staying…

Zight | September 17, 2019 | 8 min read time

Article Last Updated: July 30, 2023

Customer Empathy-Led Design and the Powerful Products That Emerge

When it comes to product design, empathy and product design go hand-in-hand when you’re striving to design powerful and innovative products.

Empathy is a powerful tactic for tackling problems that are either unknown or unclear by diving into the mindset of your target market. The essential pillar of customer empathy and project design is re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, brainstorming to think outside of the obvious solutions, and adopting a hands-on approach.

Products that are created with a lack of interest in how their target audience feel about the product, or how they will interact with it, completely miss the target. When product designers put themselves in the user’s shoes, and practice customer empathy, designers can discover their users’ needs and effectively design solutions for them. Evidently, an empathy led design is an essential component of product development as it revolves around gaining a deep understanding of the people you are designing for. Anyone who is creating something intended to be used by another person will greatly benefit from empathetic project design. With endless resources at our disposal, anyone can learn, develop and implement empathy into their design.

Products that are focused on the human it’s designed for will result in more powerful designs. Get to the heart of your end-users needs and wants with empathetic project design, and design with a deep understanding of their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations.

Why is empathic design needed?

Designers and companies must cultivate strong bonds with their customer base. This builds empathy as it embeds ourselves in our end-users struggles. When we understand the challenges that our users face, and how people feel, we can build products that effectively solve problems a specific group of people encounters.

Empathy is the bridge between you, the designer, and your end-users. It helps you to step into their mindset, recognize the pain point that needs solving, and create hypotheses to build the right product. The crux of a good product depends on understanding the end-user and designing human-centered solutions. When empathy is properly implemented, you can count on a product that will be well-received by your target audience.
As we discussed in, Design Thinking Empathy: Human-Centric Solutions, design thinking empathy asks, “who is the human behind it and what’s the human need?” Successfully answering this question allows us to embrace simple mindset shifts and tackle problems from a new direction that helps designers create innovative solutions, overcome challenges, and produce incredibly successful results. This is precisely

One of the best ways to develop empathy and an understanding of your user is to observe them without imposing our assumptions or knowledge onto them. Simply take a step back to measure the success or pain points real users experience from their perspective. Passively engaging with them in interviews, observing them, and putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak, is the first step to gaining deeper insights into their situation.

Creating empathy-driven designs with design thinking

Anyone can learn, develop and implement an empathy framework by practicing and understanding a few of the following strategies and methods during the product design development, the design thinking process, or in your UX design:

  • Adopt a beginner’s mindset
  • Observe impartially by asking “What?” “How?” “Why?”
  • Conduct interviews, empathically
  • Storyboarding
  • Create a design thinking empathy map

Adopt your user’s mindset

The best way to practice empathy is to adopt the mindset of your end-user and remove our preconceived notions, assumptions, and experiences. Since it’s impossible to rid yourself of these entirely, the best way is to constantly remind yourself to observe impartially, question everything, and really listen to what the user is saying, how they say it, the language they use, and their behavior.

What? Why? How?

Recording the “Whats”, “Hows” and “Whys” of a person during observation will help us detach from our assumptions and understand the underlying, abstract motivations driving the actions we observe. Here we can record “What” has happened. “How” the person completes the task, including whether they are smiling, frowning, struggling, perplexed and so forth. Then view the results through an empathetic lens to help determine the person’s motivations and emotions.‍

Conduct interviews, empathically

Conducting your one-on-one interviews with genuine empathy will yield the most results from your interviews. This way, you can truly connect with your real user, gain greater insights, and get to the root of their needs, hopes, desires, motivations, emotions, and goals.

Come prepared with a set of questions that enables the design team to target specific areas of information. Before the interviews, brainstorm questions with your team and consider creating lists that are centered around specific themes or topics, so the interview flows more naturally.


Storyboarding is the perfect visual for uncovering and discovering how your user will interact with the product and react to it. Laying it out visually will help you get into the mind of your user as they move through the steps. Here, you can ask yourself how well the application flows, is it user-friendly, intuitive, or confusing? Breaking it down into smaller steps and approaching your design from an empathetic viewpoint can make a massive difference between an effortlessly smooth design and an overly complex design.

Create a design thinking empathy map

A design thinking empathy map provides four major areas to focus our attention on, which gives us an overview of a person’s experience. The four major areas reflect four key traits and refer to what the user: Said, Did, Thought, and Felt. The first two are a bit easier, but determining what they thought and felt requires careful observations and analysis. When asking what the user thought? Consider, what the user might be thinking, their motivations, goals, needs, and desires. From this, ask yourself, what does this tell you about his or her beliefs? In reference to what they felt, you’re asking about the user’s emotions. Subtle cues, such as body language, word choice, and tone of voice can be infinitely valuable.

The role of empathy in UX

Whether it’s a product, an app, or a website, if you designing and developing with your user in mind, you’ll maximize your UX experience. In other words, when you fuse UX design and empathy together, you’ll create products that accurately solve a problem or fulfill a need in your end-user life. UX is best measured by the end user’s overall experience and refers to their perceptions, emotions, and responses to a company’s product, system, or service. It also takes into account the utility, ease of use and efficiency when interfacing with your design or system. all about taking complex tasks and designing the process in a way that makes it easy to understand and easy to follow, in order to accomplish their task. Simply, put your user experience design goal is to create a positive experience while fulfilling a user’s needs.

UX design is an essential middleman between the user and your company. It is often the deciding factor between becoming a loyal user, or leaving for a competitor. Providing an exceptional and memorable user experience that attracts loyal customers are designed with both the ease of the process, and the overall experience. It’s all about balancing pleasure and functionality. There is no one-size-fits-all-design, which means meeting a particular set of needs, unique to that design. It all depends on your user’s needs and expectations, and the goal of that design.
The best results come from directly interacting with your users, and gaining insight from them. Get feedback from them, observe how they interact with your interface, learn from their hands-on experience and view the results from an objective standpoint. Ask your users, and yourself, questions about their decisions, thoughts, and feelings. Your users are your most valuable teachers, so pay close attention to their actions and reactions.

UX design and empathy

Consider taking what you learned during your observations, and go beyond the obvious problem. This is the unique perspective or vision found when using an empathy framework in your product design.

No matter what you’re designing, consider your target market, and the why, what, and how. Define a user portfolio or persona according to a specific demographic, including age, where they live, career, marital status, etc. Define their personality, traits, and interests. Are they creative? Outgoing? Environmentally conscious? And finally, what motivates them? Well defined and useful personas take time and genuine empathy to develop. They are likely to evolve and change over time as your business and users grow.

When you’re asking the ‘why’, this is all about a user’s motivations. Does it relate to a task they want to perform, does it resonate with values or specific lifestyle? The ‘what’ addresses its functionality, and the ‘how’ directly impacts that functionality by balancing accessibility with aesthetics.

Empathy framework: fail fast, fail often

As mentioned, the best way to understand how your user perceives your design, is through observation. Testing prototypes against your expected user behaviors and user needs will help you identify gaps between the expected results and reality.

The results generated from testing the prototypes are crucial. Prototypes are the tangible results based on the data you’ve collected during the first three phases of the design thinking process. They are meant to help you avoid costly mistakes, eliminate weak ideas or solutions early on, and narrow in on solving your end-user challenges in an applicable and appropriate way. From there, you can learn from the gaps to improve your end product or design.

Keep in mind that successful and empathy led projects are an ongoing process that often requires several stages of revisions. In order to make strategic decisions, it’s important to gain insight into what the users do, rather than just what the users say. The bottom line is empathetic project design help designers transcend beyond their perceived notions and ideas about what they believe defines a good user experience, and allows them to tap into how the user perceives the experience. When a user hits a roadblock because the functionality is off, or the value isn’t clear, that’s where you need to reassess.

Leading brands approach to customer empathy

Leading brands, including Apple and Google, continue to successfully implement empathy led design methods into their products, which provides them with real and measurable results, and also gives them a competitive edge. Time and time again we have seen how their customer empathy strategies have allowed them to transcend the market and produce products that perfectly suit the end-users needs. There are tons of successful empathy led designs that perfectly illustrate the importance of empathy, including PepsiCo, Nike, Nordstrom, Uber, and IBM.

The key to empathy is staying connected and deeply engaged. It’s crucial to our success, personally and professionally. Keep everyone on the same page by using your office space to generate better design thinking empathy, and utilizing design tools is a great way to take notes, share your work, and stay informed. Zight (formerly CloudApp) offers a variety of features that let you instantly share your work with others, and receive invaluable insight based on direct input and real user interaction to enhance the success of your design think empathy stage.

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