Fournir empathy article header

Design with Empathy

I was once told by a manager, “Daren, you are spending too much time trying to be empathetic.” From a management perspective, he was communicating a need to, “Just get the work done”. Of course, I disagree—you cannot have too much empathy.

With empathetic eyes, we see a point of view that’s not our own. If we focus on that view, we then feel from that perspective. It is only from a deep understanding of the viewer's perspective—achieved through listening—that we can then design to resonate with that viewer.

This simple statement is a fundamental principle of good design, because it addresses both physical and emotional needs. This principle can apply to the way we manage people, the way we design products and services, the way we design brands, and the way we design for countless other cultural institutions. It is the principle of good design in general.

We can cite numerous examples on one side or the other—those who do or do not take into account an empathetic viewpoint, or a human-centered approach to design toward a desired outcome.

Fournir empathy norman door example

The Norman Door

First example, the “Norman Door”—a door that is so terribly designed and yet so ubiquitous that we confront it on a daily basis. Dive a little deeper and you’ll quickly learn the name was coined by Don Norman, a professor of psychology, cognitive science, computer science, and a vice president of advanced technology at Apple. The design of this door is such a fail that at nearly every attempt to open it, we find ourselves physically jarred because we didn’t push or pull “correctly”. This is a perfect example of not applying human-centered, empathetic design. And yet, these doors are still being specified, manufactured and installed around the world.

YouTube video by Vox Media about the Norman Door

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Clear RX

On the other hand, there are clear examples where a designer saw a problem and then, applying a deep understanding of human needs, created something beloved by people across the country. Enter the ClearRX medication system. Together with industrial designer Klaus Rosberg, Deborah Adler of Adler Design simplified and streamlined the prescription medication experience, creating a unique pill bottle complete with legible typography, color coded bands, and an ergonomic design for human hands. The design was enormously successful. However, when Target sold its prescription drug business to CVS, the old bottles were brought back citing “ease and cost effectiveness”—much to the dismay of humans everywhere.

Sidenote: In 2017, CVS hired the same designer to redesign its labeling system, but decided to keep the old bottle. I suspect the old bottles were readily available and the new bottles were more expensive, which cut into profit margins.

Short video on Twitter by Vox Media about ClearRX

These are just two examples where design has hugely impacted the final outcome and experience. It’s not difficult to conclude that a lack of empathy leads to bad design decisions and a bad experience, and an abundance of empathy leads to a good outcome and a good experience.

So how do we obtain empathy? It takes time and desire. We must invest in a process that spans all design disciplines. We must spend energy and damn good money to understand how people think and feel. We must put ourselves in their headspace to observe, think and feel so we can see firsthand the problems people encounter and design an appropriate response.

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Texas Children’s Hospital

For example, on a research project for Texas Children’s Hospital, I was fortunate to be invited to shadow patients and families as they experienced the hospital ecosystem and document the experience along the way. But we started not from the moment they encountered the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in Houston, rather from the moment they started their journey.

This type of thinking and empathetic approach designed by the team at Formation in Houston, Texas, led to a remarkable understanding of patient experience and the entire ecosystem, which then led to cogent recommendations to enhance patient satisfaction, which ultimately led to measurable results that would improve the hospital’s bottom line. Imagine that.

Human-centered research article on

The evidence in favor of a human-centered empathetic approach to design is abundant and furthermore self-evident. Take the time, spend the money, and do the research. Do not neglect to understand your audience and their needs.

To be fair, I must first address my opening statement from the perspective of the manager. His viewpoint in the moment was certainly valid. It was business minded. It was unfortunate that money was a determining factor. But the scenario begs the question, did we not empathize enough in the beginning? Did we not fully understand the problem? The desired outcome? And isn’t this the true reason why we found ourselves in the argument in the first place?

In that moment, I felt the finger was pointing at me. But the burden of proof was actually on everyone involved, client and agency. It’s our duty as designers to engage in an overt process that helps us completely understand the problem. We must become advocates for the people using the product or service, before any design begins. If we trust the process while focusing on the long-term goals over short-term wins and immediate profits, the end result will be a lasting effort full of clarity, integrity, quality and value.

To this end, we must dive in with empathetic eyes and design with the greatest possible care.


Intro and header image by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash. Original article published on Linkedin.


Problem Solving
Healthcare Design