Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry

Article excerpt


Empathic design is part of a relatively new branch of user-centered design approaches that support design teams in building creative understanding of users and their everyday lives (e.g., Fulton Suri, 2003a; Koskinen & Battarbee, 2003; Sanders & Dandavate, 1999). A review of design research literature shows that the founders of empathic design, including leading academics and design consultancies such as IDEO and SonicRim, have successfully explored empathic design in projects for and with clients in the industry (Black, 1998; Sanders, 2001). Much less has been published about how others can successfully introduce and practice empathic design within an industrial organization, and the difficulties they may encounter when trying to do so.

In this paper we share and reflect on our experiences with doing empathic design at Philips Research, a corporate research organization of Royal Philips Electronics. We focus on the challenges that were encountered when introducing and practicing empathic design in this organization, and also propose three cultural and methodological changes that we think are necessary to overcome these challenges. The paper proceeds in three parts. First, we give a brief introduction to empathic design, its four principles, and its position in the industry. Then we explain how empathic design fits within the context of Philips and introduce a project illustrating this about baby care at Philips Research. Finally, we discuss the challenges encountered over the past years, as well as the three changes that we identified that need to be made for the future, with examples from the Baby Care project where appropriate.

Principles of Empathic Design

Empathic design is a design research approach that is directed towards building creative understanding of users and their everyday lives for new product development (NPD). Creative understanding is the combination of a rich, cognitive and affective understanding, and the ability to translate this understanding into user-centered products and services (Wright & McCarthy, 2005). It draws on information about the user and his/her everyday life, and it includes inspiration for design and empathy, or 'a feel' for the user (Postma, Lauche, & Stappers, 2009). The empathic design approach is considered most valuable in the early stages of NPD, when product opportunities need to be identified and product concepts developed (Koskinen & Battarbee, 2003).

Over the past few years, empathic design has rapidly evolved in response to the popular notion of design for user experience. Design for experience means design guided by broad and thorough understanding of users and their experiences. It is a design attitude that emerged in the 1990s when the design community was increasingly faced with the design of complex integrated systems that affect users' behaviors and experiences beyond the individual product or service, and started to realize that a broader approach to user-centered design would be necessary to develop products that are pleasurable and easy to use. At the same time, the business community came to see design for experience as a way to build stronger emotional connections with their customers (Brazen, 2009; Dandavate, Sanders, & Stuart, 1996; Fulton Suri, 2003b; Pine & Gilmore, 1998). The attitude involves respecting users, being committed to understanding users' needs and desires, building holistic understanding of users' activities, and relying on personal insight and creativity (Mattelmäki, 2006). The design for user experience attitude is reflected in four principles that, we think, lie at the heart of the empathic design approach.

The first principle is balancing rationality and emotions in building understanding of users' experiences. In 1996, Dandavate, Sanders and Stuart noticed that the human factors discipline has mainly focused on the scientific study of the rational domain, i.e., how people understand and use products. …

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