Empathy-driven designs / by Gavin Lau

Design is about finding a connection between people and a product or service that empowers them in accomplishing a task or satisfying a need through a personal touch. My personal belief when designing for very specific users is to get in the shoes and try to comprehend their situation. This is easier said than done in most cases; to achieve this we have to be vulnerable and look at the world through their lenses. This requires rigorous honesty and willingness to accept one’s designs to be a failure when they do not work. A lot of the times, as designers, we tend to fall into the trap of trying to convince ourselves of the solution on hand; we try to base our research to suit what we already have designed. This is something that I have been noticing often times when working on very fast sprints, the research is grounded by the solution and not the other way around. Another difficulty with empathy-driven designs is attaining an unbiased state of mind(which is almost never possible) to design something that purely talks to the human-needs. Even though we are designers thinking about the user needs, we are humans as well, and we are susceptible to biases that have formed in our heads over the years. This brings us to a situation where we need to use our intuition, that builds over time, to gauge our designs that fall under the categories of providing good, mediocre, or bad experiences. Empathy-driven designs is not just about translating human needs to experiences, but it is also about sustaining the experience to provide a continuous and timeless solution.

Empathy Map

Empathy Map

To illustrate how empathy is built over time considering the above mentioned parameters, I devised an empathy map that highlights how designs are developed with empathy as a focus. This explains how as intuition builds, designs tend to get better, and as biases reduce, the intuition that takes designers to good designs, increases. In the entire process, empathy is built over reduction of biases and increase in intuition that helps in producing good designs.


Principles of Design

Designers develop a set of principles that influence their output. These principles are built over time based on their learnings from their past experiences. I have five principles which I use as lenses to look at my designs to evaluate them.

As an empathy-driven designer who aims at understanding the user-needs prior to thinking about design solutions for a problem, user-centeredness is a primary principle that defines how my designs rationalize. Over time I have noticed that designs that address very fine user-needs create delightful experience. The aggregation of such fine details make up for a refined experience, though when these details are looked at in silos, they seem insignificant or trivial. User-centeredness is not just about addressing needs, but also about making sure the design makes the intentions of the product or service lucid. If the design is capable of clearly articulating the purpose of its existence, the fallacies and biases associated during the design process were addressed. This can be said with quite an amount of assertion as biases makes it less intuitive to understand for a broader audience.

Many of us have heard the phrase form follows function — this is a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design. Taking this principle further, I’d like to add that form explains the function. Simple design is obvious, unobtrusive and leaves room for self-expression. Self-expression in architecture is creating spaces that enables people to modify the surrounding the suit their preferences. Self-expression in the world of screens is the ability of a system to be malleable into customizable modules that can address a varied set of users. Irrespective of the complexity of the system, the design should abstract only necessary information relevant to user usage. Anything more could increase the complexity and create ambiguity. The balance is hard to strike as the interface also needs to clearly explain the possible functionalities the system is capable of.

Design Abstraction

Design Abstraction


Minimalism goes hand in hand with simplicity as a principle. Minimalist designs are not just about removing the ornamentation, but it is about creating a simple, clean and intuitive interface that clearly speaks to the goal the product is aiming to achieving at any given state. This requires very clear definition of what the state that is being designed for comprises of. By breaking down the interface into different states that has varied but specific goals helps in creating a minimalist design whose core focus is accomplish one task at a time. This greatly reduces the cognitive load on the user at the same time helps in creating a minimal interface.

We live in a throwaway society — the permanence in design is almost impossible to achieve especially on digital interfaces. Physical artifacts such as furniture, musical instruments etc have the tangible element that can keep them timeless. But, how can a digital interface remain timeless? How can new interactions be introduced that stand the test of time? We have noticed that operating systems of mobile phones are revisited and designed every couple of years; there are incremental changes in current editions, and there are complete overhauls which do not resemble the current versions — this leads to the need of relearning the interface. This takes us to the question of what is timeless design in the digital world? To answer this question, it is imperative to know the technological advancements that could be predicted for the next few years to come. It is important to understand existing patterns that have worked, get a deeper understanding as to why these patterns were successful, rethink before creating a complete redesign; need to understand if the change is necessary. This can be done by segregating the interface elements into sections that work and do not work. The interface can extend beyond the screens as well; the surroundings, the environment, the context of use and the medium of achieving a particular task needs to be taken into consideration. Listing out these parameters that directly affect the design and tying them to the solution will help in creating designs that last longer than their existing time-period.

Aesthetic response to a design is almost immediate. There is a stimulus created rapidly on looking at a product — this greatly influences what a person feels about the product even upon use. If this initial aesthetic appeal brings about a negative emotion, there is a great chance that the design would fail irrespective of its efficiency with function.


Design Process

Over the last couple of years working and studying as a designer, I have a design process that is ever developing and changing. The design process has a few elements which are always constant and a few that are variable based on the design context on hand. There are three main phases in my design process which consists of a few parameters that define how each phase takes shape.

My Design Process

My Design Process

Understanding the problem

  • Problem Statement
    Creating a deeper sense of what is the problem that is being tackled is important. Many a times, designers think they are solving for a very particular problem and it turns out a very higher level issue which does not dig deep into the root of the problem is being solved for. This requires persistent questioning to understand the actual cause of the problem.
  • Research
    Research is a primary method to help in understanding the problem. Methods such as interviews, contextual inquiries, body-storming, artifact analysis, surveys, secondary research etc helps in understanding people I am designing for.
  • User-needs
    On creating a deeper understanding of the users I am designing for, there is a clarity on their needs and this helps in narrowing the focus on what probable design spaces could be.



  • Ideas
    Idea generation is one of the most fundamental elements in a design process. Multiple ideas that aim at satisfying the user needs that were uncovered from the initial research are generated. I sometimes tend ideate for blue-sky ideas that does not consider much of technological constraints; this helps in generating out of the box ideas which could then be funneled by the constraints.
  • Sketches
    Never are designs successful when it is just one mind working on a problem. I makes sure I have multiple ideation sessions that involve spontaneous sketching and white boarding sessions
  • Constraints & Assumptions
    Designs initially start off very broad and it is extremely easy to fall in the trap of solving all problems with one design. This is impossible and there needs to be a point where one has to constrain themselves in order to design something that solves one problem at a time effectively. Constraining also helps in good rationalization of the design; it is imperative to know the reason for constraining and the assumptions that tie with it. In a recent interview I was asked how I went about validating my assumptions, and I think that is a very good thought to ponder about as we tend to make certain assumptions while designing but fail to validate the feasibility of our assumptions.


Synthesis & Iteration

  • Goals
    When designing an interface, especially flow of screens, I define the goal for each screen, i.e — what is the task that is the primary focus of the current interface? Once I have this defined, I try to accomplish the task with as little on the screen as possible. This balance is hard to attain as there could be elements which need to be constant between multiple screens. Reduce, prioritize & organize are steps that I follow in order to establish what goes on a screen.
  • Context
    Basing design on a context or a scenario helps in developing a storyboard that talks about the experience being created. It gets easier to imagine the exact use of the design when placed in context. In the case of screen-based design, the flow of screens can be visualized when we picture users in a very particular situation reacting to changes, both in the environment and on the interface. Design plays a role in general evolution of environment, and the design process takes on new meaning.
  • Validation
    Validation of designs is a way to gauge the usability, impact and effectiveness. Usability helps in determining how easy to comprehend the interface is. Impact determines the effect of the design on people. Effectiveness of the design is a way to understand if the goals of the design are met when put to use. In my process, there exists a continuous feedback loop between the users, stakeholders and the design. Development of design expertise lies in the accumulation of experience and understanding existing patterns that worked for very specific contexts, and manipulating them to work for the problem on hand. This makes this entire design process iterative with continuous modifications to create a seamless experience. This sort of a continuous validation not only helps the designers to build empathy, but the design to be an empathetic model of the designers ideas.



Source: https://uxdesign.cc/design-philosophy-ee40...