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Design Thinking, Leadership, Startups

Want A Crash Course In Stanford’s Design Thinking? Here it is for free (Pt. 1 Empathy)

The Institute of Design (D.School) at Stanford has become one of the most talked about institutions recently because of the methodology they are spreading around the world to improve our lives through a collaborative approach that inspires human centered innovations. Last week I had the absolute privilege of being a part of the Design Thinking Hawaii boot camp which was focused on improving the education system in Hawai’i.

I spent an entire week submersed in this methodology but most importantly put it to practice when coaching a team of educators through a 3 day design challenge. The Design Thinking process is broken up into a 5 step ITERATIVE (not linear) process.

In this first crash course post, I will discuss the “Empathize” step.

What is empathy?

To feel what someone else feels. To walk in another’s shoes. This is the very first step in the design thinking process and ultimately sets the foundation for true innovation to occur by putting all assumptions and ideas aside and letting your users be your inspiration for the key problems to solve.  A lot of times we shape a potential solution which really has no influence from direct conversations with our users. Basically, throw all previous knowledge out the door and all you need to for this stage is your genuine curiosity to solve a problem.

The objective: To help people articulate the latent needs users may not even know they have.

The 3 ways to empathize

Immerse: Become the user and actually live their experiences. A great example of this comes from Tim Brown’s book “Change by Design” when IDEO was designing for Robert Porter who is the CEO of the SSM DeParul Health Center in Saint Louis. Their challenge was to design a better experience for ER patients.  Instead of analyzing and brainstorming new ideas automatically, they actually had one of their designers become a patient in the emergency room and see what the patient experience was like.

“With a video camera tucked discreetly beneath his hospital gown, Kristian captured a patient’s experience in a way that no surgeon, nurse, or ambulance driver could possibly have done… As they sat through minute after tedious minute of acoustic ceiling tiles, look-alike hallways, and featureless waiting areas… It triggered in each of them the mix of boredom and anxiety that comes with being in a situation in which one feels lost, uninformed and not in control.”

These were amazing insights in how patients feel while experiencing their services that an outsider would most likely never understand unless immersing themselves.

Observe: People watching is always fun but observing is about seeing users actions and hypothesizing why they are acting a certain way. This can also be a powerful tool to step into their shoes without having to disrupt their normal behaviors.

Observation technique:

– What is this person (or persons) doing?

– How are they doing it? (Body Language, etc.)

– Why are they doing it this way?

Engage: Getting out of the building and actually talking to your users is probably the most uncomfortable but potentially the most effective if done right. The thing here is not to blatantly go up and ask your user for the solution because most of the time we really don’t know what makes us happy. Engage in conversations that allow users to tell stories of their experiences.

We proposed a challenge to educators to design a deeper local Hawaii experience for visitors, so here is a pair out at Diamond Head Crater gaining empathy

Tips when seeking stories:

– Listen. This may seem obvious but it is surprising how much we do not listen to the people we are trying to solve problems for. Forget about yourself and be completely optimistic and open to listening to the needs of your users.

– Seek Stories. High level conversations won’t inspire you to be able to ideate towards a remarkable solution. Seek in depth stories about a users experiences that touch their emotions.

– Ask Why. As you are listening to stories and hear them express a point, always dig deeper and ask why. You may have heard of the ” 5 Why’s” technique which is ultimately if someone expresses something asking why 5 times will usually get them to express a deeper need which they may not have understood initially.

– Build relationships. Authenticity trumps anything. Designers are genuinely wanting to help solve users problems and being as authentic as possible when engaging with someone will allow their real selves to come out. We all know the feeling of what it is like to be interviewed and how different we are than a genuine conversation with a friend. That is the goal and spirit of empathy.

Now that we have gained empathy, now it is time to unpack all of our users stories. This is a technique that the D. School uses which allows designers to dissect the stories they sought out and organizes them into four categories.

Story Mapping technique

How do you use this?

– Recreate this chart and put it on a large vertical space.

– Give post-it notes and sharpies to everyone in your design group.

– Retell the empathy stories to your design group. Note: This is a collaborative exercise and shouldn’t be done sitting down with the storyteller broadcasting lecture style. Stand in a group around a vertical space.

– As the group is listening to the story, any part that can be headlined and put into one of the four quadrants should be written on a post-it and stuck in that category. This doesn’t need to be done by one person and everyone should be listening and sticking headlines to the chart. The more the merrier.

– Question the story (Find “Whoa’s”). From the listeners perspective, anything you hear that has tension, contradiction or seems surprising to you, always dig deeper to the why, similar to when doing empathy. Your goal is to come to an insight that may not be able to have been heard on the surface level.

Go out and try to gain empathy for a small challenge. This is a very difficult skill to master but with continued practice can turn into some amazing inspirations. Let me know how it goes!

About Joey Aquino

@Joey_Aquino https://joeyaquino.wordpress.com/ http://www.linkedin.com/in/jdaquino


39 thoughts on “Want A Crash Course In Stanford’s Design Thinking? Here it is for free (Pt. 1 Empathy)

  1. Just what I need. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Bryan Lee | May 24, 2012, 6:32 pm
  2. Great to see such mit style enthusiasm to serve the world, here is a great talk on id http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbluTDb1Nfs&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    Posted by Bill Haines | May 27, 2012, 3:13 pm
  3. Great stuff, thanks!
    I can’t wait for the next installment.

    Posted by Bill | May 29, 2012, 7:01 am
  4. So good. Keep ’em coming Jaq!

    Posted by Danielle Reyes (@dotreyes) | June 1, 2012, 12:01 am
  5. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read more.

    Posted by Yi-tzu Lee | June 7, 2012, 6:25 am
  6. Very nice recap of design thinking, I hope its OK to pass along your summary to some colleagues in Minnesota.

    Posted by Brian Crotteau | August 6, 2012, 11:58 am
  7. I love the story mapping technique. When cultivating an empathic response things seem to get a little high level and ooey gooey. This is a great way to make the rubber hit the road while still telling the human story. Great tool, I will be sure to save this one.

    Posted by lydenfoust | April 5, 2013, 6:52 am
  8. Great post. Loving it! I’m in the process of writing a book about my experiences learning Design Thinking at Stanford. It covers everything. Follow it at http://www.strikingly.com/craneforcreativity.

    Posted by J D | April 25, 2013, 10:45 am
  9. Very helpful! Thank you for posting this.

    Posted by Gail | November 4, 2013, 7:40 pm
  10. Nice post, I like the empathy grid. Thanks for sharing, I did not even know that’s school put on 1 week workshops

    Posted by jbrieger123 | September 30, 2014, 8:18 am
  11. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I’m using lots of opportunities to use the human centered design process in call centers. Love it!

    Posted by Creating A Welcoming Government and Connected Customers | April 3, 2016, 12:06 pm


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