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The Best Product Design Is Empathic

It’s common knowledge that product designers wear many hats, but it’s just as important for us to wear many shoes. At Bresslergroup, before we begin designing a product, we do our best to walk in our users’ shoes. At its core, this is empathic design, and it is essential to our practice.

Empathic design is the idea that seeing things through a user’s eyes instantly transforms them from “users” into humans, and leads to better design insights and solutions.

We’ve done this again and again, and it has taken us to some unconventional places — we’ve entered fighter-jet cockpits, cadaver labs, sea fishing boats, locker rooms, coal mines, adult bookstores, operating rooms, dentists’ offices, and sewage treatment plants. Our team has traveled throughout the U.S. and to many faraway destinations, including China, Brazil, Slovenia, Berlin, and Paris.


The Value of Empathic Design


So why do we travel far and wide in pursuit of empathic design?

In short, empathic design helps us create better products. One example is when we were called to redesign a window air conditioning unit for a large consumer products company. We visited a dozen users at their homes across three states and found most users had duct-taped the edges of their units to their window frames.

It would have been easy to assume from this sight that users needed better insulation, a product that truly fits to a window’s dimensions. But by spending time with users in their homes, we discovered what they really wanted was access to their windows — to have air conditioning as well as views and the option of fresh air.

By taking the time for empathic design, we were able to reframe the problem and come up with a better solution.


Accessible Design Means Better Design for All


We believe accessible design drives innovation for all.

Recently Comcast created the industry’s first “talking TV guide,” or voice-enabled television user interface. While the product was designed for people with limited sight, it has also benefited aging populations and multitaskers who prefer a hands-free alternative to a remote control.

Comcast quickly realized that products designed with accessibility in mind make life better for all users and launched an accessibility lab to drive future R&D.

We think Comcast is onto something. To find the best design insights, design with empathy for all users, including the atypical.


What Users Say Versus What They Do


What users say and do is often quite different, and empathic design can help us see through that fog.

When we were working on a redesign of a scalpel for cataract surgery, we did user research with nurses and asked them to demonstrate how they passed the scalpel to the surgeon. Then we watched them pass the scalpel to the surgeon during actual surgeries. What the nurses described and demonstrated outside the operating room was much different from what they did inside the operating room.

The nurses weren’t trying to deceive us. They really thought they were doing what they had described, but by putting ourselves in their shoes, we saw the disconnect. With that knowledge, we were able to design a safer product.


Users Are Product Development Partners


The first step in making your design practices more empathic is to treat users like product development partners. While you bring expertise, users are the ones who need your product and will ultimately benefit from it. Be willing to set your opinions aside to really listen.

At Bresslergroup we involve users early in the process to understand their pain points and make sure we’re solving the right problem. We check in with users during the development process, and we test prototypes with them along the way.

Keep in mind, too, that gender plays a role. While 85% of all consumer purchases are made or influenced by women, even gender-neutral products are often designed for men. Involve female users and consider our advice on designing better products for women.


Empathic Design for the Future


Traditionally, research was limited to the past and present. Through empathic design, we can begin to understand users’ aspirations and ask them how a product might help in the future.

If your user is a mom with two kids in middle school, ask what her life will look like when her kids are in high school or have moved out. Will she still use the product you’re developing? This can help future-proof products, giving them longer life spans.

That’s especially important considering the risks of product development are so high. According to the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), 25 to 45 percent of consumer products eventually fail in the market, and the U.S. Department of Commerce says 95 percent of new products miss their sales and performance goals.


Recommended Reading


If you’re looking to dive deeper into the world of empathic design, we recommend reading a research paper published in the International Journal of Design titled Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry in its entirety.

Of course, there’s no better teacher than experience, so give empathic design a shot. It’s a challenge that pays dividends!

About the author: To Mathieu, design is not just about fixing complicated problems — it’s about evoking emotion. And he believes emotional appeal can be rationally and analytically designed. This is the foundation of everything he does at Bresslergroup.

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