Understanding Design Thinking Part 1: The User Is King


This article is the first in a series on the Design Thinking Method. The Design Thinking Method is an iterative process used by many of the most innovative companies and organizations. It consists of 5 stages:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

It can be visualized like this:

Design Thinking: User

In this article, we dive into the first stage of the process: Empathize.

Empathize: The User is King

The difference between design and art is the usability of the end product. A piece of art is not meant to be usable. It might be used to communicate a message or challenge the status quo, but it is not going to be used by a user. An artifact of design, on the other hand, is meant to be of use to someone. A designed object is given to another person for their use, whereas an artwork is given to another person for their enjoyment. In other words, the designed object changes the owner who can do with it what she wants. Whereas the ownership of the artwork stays with the artist in a way, as the artwork would lose its purpose and value if it was changed.

This is crucial to understand when diving into product design: You are essentially creating an object which you hand over to strangers, so they can use it to fulfill their needs. They need to be able to understand the object, see its usefulness, and be able to use it on their own. For this reason, understanding your users, how they live, how they interact with their environment, and what their needs and desires are is paramount. Only like this, you will understand how you should design your product.

For that reason, the first stage of the Design Thinking method is Empathize. By passively observing your users in their natural habitat, actively interviewing them, and independently trying to put yourself into their shoes, you gain the insight you need in order to create something meaningful for your target group. Let’s look at the different methods for empathizing with your target group in the following steps:

Step 1: Passive Observation

To start off your user research, it’s a great idea to seek out environments where your target group naturally spends time. You can also look for situations where they might stumble upon the problem you’re trying to solve to learn how they’re currently dealing with the problem.

When observing, take on a passive role where you don’t interact or disturb the environment. You want to learn about the lifestyle, behavior, activities, needs, and motivations that naturally occur. This is only possible if you turn yourself into a fly on the wall.

So how could this look?

Let’s say you’re working on a solution for young school children struggling with learning. Great places to observe your target group could be:

  • in classrooms
  • at after-school activities
  • at home
  • etc.

Some of these might be easier to organize than others, but maybe you know someone with a child whom you could visit. You can also ask your local school for allowance to observe a class. It doesn’t cost you anything to ask, and the insights you might get could be worth gold.

Maybe by observing the classroom, you discover that the children start fidgeting in their chairs 20 minutes after their last break. Maybe you notice that the children in the back are more restless than those in the front. Or that the students with a same-sex neighbor are more easily distracted than those sitting next to a student of the opposite gender.

Maybe by observing the after-school activities, you see how the children act differently in that different environment – notice what is different in their behavior and in the environment respectively. You might discover areas where the children are more focused and areas where they’re less so than in school.

And maybe by observing the home, you get an idea of what rules and etiquette they’re taught to follow. You see what they like to do when they’re in a safe space. You learn about their interests, their personalities, and their struggles.

With all of that information (and probably even more insights), you would have a good basis for understanding your target group and creating personas for it. You understand their environment, their daily activities, their enjoyments, and their struggles. With these in mind, you will have the best chances of designing something that’s relevant, useful for, and wanted by those you’re trying to help.

Step 2: Active Interviews

Once you’ve got an initial understanding of your target group, it’s time to dive deeper and actually engage with them!

That’s where user interviews come into play. You might have learned a bunch from observing your target audience, but you weren’t able to ask any questions about their behavior, their needs, or their lives. But that’s possible through the user interviews.

When conducting user interviews, you should by all means avoid talking about your idea (if you have an idea in mind). Just like the observations, these conversations are aimed at getting to know your target audience thoroughly and letting them share their thoughts and feelings with you freely.

For example, instead of asking: 👉 “What do you think about an app that helps you track your daily calorie consumption by means of pictures?” You should rather ask: 👉 “How would you solve the problem of too high-calorie intake?”

You might end up with an impossible or uncreative solution, or a solution that’s exactly like yours. In either case, you’ve gotten a better understanding of the horizon and the perspective of your target audience than if you’d just asked them for their opinion on your idea. (Remember: Even if they don’t mention your idea, you can still go with it).

This approach is called the Mom-Test. If you asked your mother whether she likes your idea, you’re sure to get a “yes, honey!” – not because your mom is a liar, but because she loves you and doesn’t want to hurt you. A lot of people unconsciously act in the same way. If asked for their opinion, too many answer politely. By asking about their lives and their thoughts about the world, you avoid those kindhearted answers.

Other Approaches

Extreme Cases

Lastly, it may be a good idea to explore how extreme cases might deal with the issue you’re trying to solve. For example, in the case of the struggling children described in the article about passive observation, you could look at a child who is mentally disabled and therefore has trouble learning as quickly as everyone else. This would be an extremer case than a child who is easily distracted and fidgety. Or your extreme case could be a child with a migrant background who has trouble understanding the language and culture of the school, giving her an additional obstacle on her learning journey.

The goal is not to design solutions for extreme cases, per se. You can, but the goal is rather to use their obvious struggles to understand the struggles of less extreme cases, who simply might not be able to voice their struggles as clearly as the extreme cases.

Use your imagination or seek out people representing extreme user cases. Figure out how they would react to the problem you’re solving, which additional struggles they are having, and in which way they are currently dealing with those.

Body Storming

Try putting yourself in the same situation as your target group. By physically going through the same experience, you will develop an empathetic understanding of your users. It might not always be possible and it might not always be the same experience. For example, as an adult, you won’t be able to experience a situation exactly like a child. Your level of maturity hinders this. Nevertheless, if you prepare well and get creative, you can come relatively close, thus getting a better idea of the needs of your end-users. If you are interested to read more about Design Thinking, check out this post.

That was all about Empathizing. Now it’s your turn to go try it out and gain a better understanding of your target group!

Enjoyed reading this article? Ever invited a pirate for a coffee? Now’s your chance.

Tagged as design thinking, empathize, innovation, user

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