Empathy-first will fuel your creative process

What has empathy got to do with creativity? Being a highly empathetic person I was delighted to find that there is a significant correlation between empathy and creativity. The desire to serve or help others seems to become fuel for the designer. There are several examples showing that creatives working with empathy in the design process are the ones who make lasting impacts. 

What is empathy?

Empathy is often described as the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. And let’s add to that the ability to identify and understand how that other person feels in this specific situation. Don’t mess it up with sympathy. Empathy does not necessarily include compassion. It’s just a respectful understanding of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. 

The empathy-first mindset

Creative companies such as IDEO and Tadpull have build a mindset incorporating empathy in the design process as the step 0. Their main idea is to connect with their users or customers on an emotional level by collecting data from interviews and observations before even beginning to let the ideas flow. Doing so they get a deep understanding of user needs and situational factors. This allows designers to target their creative process and develop solutions with a lasting impact. 

Some would argue that this way of thinking will kill innovation because customers don’t know what they want and are not capable of imagining things that do not yet exist. It’s the good old song that “you should never give customers what they want, but what they need”. However,  with the empathy-first mindset you get a unique understanding of customer needs, and wait – isn’t that what we were looking for?

The method of empathy mapping is a very powerful way to help reframing your problem and opening up your range of sustainable solutions. 

Empathy mapping

Sometimes it’s really useful to frame your thinking, and that is where the empathy map can help you out. Empathy mapping is a classic method in design thinking and provides you with a framework to organize your knowledge and insights from customer interviews and observations. 

In the empathy map you organize your data in four categories:

  • What users say (interviews, feedback etc.)
  • What users do (statistics, observations)
  • What users think (interviews, observations)
  • What users feel (interviews, observations)

I just made a semi-fictitious map with insights from these first weeks of running a blog to illustrate the practice. Obviously the hard part is to get an insight into what users think and feel. This is where you will shine, if you are high on the empathy scale. Ask really good questions based on your observation, and make sure that your users feel safe to answer honestly.

If there is an anthropologist in your team, make sure to get her on board for this. I have previously worked with a team of anthropologists and learned from the best how to ask situational questions that provide valuable user insights.

I chose an image for this post from the exhibition “Summer of love” that was shown in the De Young Museum, San Francisco in 2017. It reminds us that caring for each other can be the beginning of innovative movements. 

Coming up: Empathy is not just useful in the creative process. It’s an essential skill in leadership, and I will be back with another post devoted to the ups and downs of empathy. 

Read more

If you want to learn more about creativity related to empathy, I suggest the following readings: 


Empathy as Related to Creativity, Dogmatism, and Expressiveness


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