Why is empathy important in design today?

Uchitha Hettiarachchi

Founder/ Creative Director @Xentury

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

What does empathy have to do with design and what role does empathy play from a business standpoint? The answer to these questions lies in first identifying the meaning of empathy and the difference between empathy and sympathy: two words that may seem similar but are distinctly different.

What is empathy?

Empathy, by definition means – the ability to understand and share feelings of another. However, empathy in design is how far into the consumer’s mind the brand can travel and recreate the learnings and observations to create a product that is as closest to the consumer’s perception of things. However, to truly immerse oneself in another’s shoes, one must shelve his/her own preconceived ideologies and perceptions first.

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

The defining factor between empathy and sympathy is the ability to be present with the consumer in his/her experience of the brand, business, product or service. Sympathetic design would take a more ‘outside-the-circle approach’; whereas empathetic design is an inside-the-circle approach. The absence of empathy creates ‘an empathy gap’ as Steven Gans, Chief Insights and Analytics Officer of PepsiCo once said; and leads to generic, lifeless commodities that neither solve a problem, build a connection nor meet the needs of a target consumer group. This proves that empathy is truly the cogwheel of success in design and business today, here’s a closer look.

The Key to Design Thinking 

Empathy, is the starting point in the universal process of design thinking. Definition, ideation, prototyping and testing are all what follows empathy which proves that it is empathy that leads the design thinking process. Design thinking is what encourages one to truly slip into the shoes of the consumer and ensures the outcome, is what is actually a pressing need of the target group and not what one may think or assume it to be. Design thinking at its best therefore, prevents the waste of time and effort spent on ‘needless design.’


It is important to remember that design thinking cannot be followed in a merely sequential form. It has more to do with understanding the user in a profound way, rather than a framework to be followed for design as revealed by Donald A. Norman, Co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, “human-centered design is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods….”

The Key to Business Success

Henry Ford once said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own”.  On these lines, if one were to embark on a journey to dive to an in-depth study of any successful brand and business today, it will reveal that it is the projection of the user’s mental and emotional experience onto design execution, rather than the designer’s individual creative signature into the product or service that makes a groundbreaking impact.

The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella once said, “…our core business is connected with the customers’ needs and we will not be able to satisfy them if we don’t have a deep sense of empathy…”. Looking at the trajectory of success that Microsoft has said over the years, it is not hard to see how keeping empathy at the core of the business has served them well.

The Key to Building Brand Loyalty

Data is a currency and also a lifeline almost of over half of the world’s businesses and profit-generating organizations today. In the constant generation, analysis and exchange of volumes of data, it is easy to completely lose sight of the living, breathing human on the other end of the statistical analysis and data configuration. In the words of Nick Graham, Vice President of PepsiCo – a multinational company that generated a profit in excess of 70 billion US dollars in 2020, “this is where empathy comes into play. In building a deeper understanding of the people who buy our brands, we elevate our marketing beyond the generic and create products, programs and communications with the power to make people feel heard, moved and inspired.”

A trademark of ‘empathetic design’ is brand loyalty; the closer you get to the mind of the consumer, the more you draw your consumer in to your vision for the brand, thus creating a connection that’s unmistakably extraordinary. Any brand that has been created without ‘empathetic design’ at its core has failed or is on a trajectory to fail. It is empathy that “…helps marketers break out of their blind spots, open their eyes to the human side of the consumer and flips the conversation from brand-led to people-led…” (Nick Graham, VP, PepsiCo.)

The Key to Staying Relevant and Relatable  

“It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker it has to be ‘us with them’” -Tim Brown-

Economic, political, social, cultural climates changes so often in today’s world that design must also morph to suit the ever-changing needs and wants that each climate will birth. This means, approaching problem-solving in a human-centric manner. A product’s desirability is one of the main factors that contribute to the success of ‘relevant design’. If what is being projected to the consumer isn’t desirable, there is little to no hope of it succeeding. Empathy must challenge the norm but also birth creative solutions to an ever changing ‘consumer-climate’.

In conclusion

The need for empathy arose from the inadequacy that came with the rigid one-size-fits-all approach to mass production and consumerism that was birthed by the industrial revolution. It could be said that empathy is almost like a currency that designers and business strategists can use to trade or uncover the underlying needs and wants of the complex and unique beings on the receiving end of a product or service. If empathy is what makes a great design thinker, it could be said every human being on this planet, are all design thinkers because we were created with an innate ability to be empathetic beings.