What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking can be a powerful mindset for problem solving in any discipline. To put it simply, design thinking is a structured approach to generating and developing ideas. It is human-centered, collaborative, optimistic, and experimental. The design thinking process (also referred to as “human-centered design”) begins with empathizing with people to understand their needs and motivations. Teams work together in the process, bringing multiple perspectives to solving a challenge. Team members share a fundamental belief that we all can create change. Along the way, the team will make mistakes, and these failures provide opportunities to learn and come up with new ideas.


Why Does The Design Thinking Process Begin With Empathy?

Empathy helps design thinkers solve problems by building a solid understanding of the beliefs and values of the people they are designing for. Design thinkers empathize with people by observing, engaging, and immersing. Watching what people do and their behavior in a real-life context reveals information how they think and feel, as well as what they need. Engagement with people frequently involves encouraging them to tell stories in both scheduled interviews and short, unstructured interactions. By engaging with people directly, design thinkers seek to uncover needs that people have but may not be aware of, identify the right users to design for, and discover the emotions that guide their behaviors. Finally, design thinkers seek to experience the situation their users are in through immersion. As much as possible, design thinkers try to step out of themselves and into other people’s shoes, to see with a fresh pair of eyes and gain unexpected insights that will inform the generation of innovative solutions.


Watch the following videos to learn more about empathy and why it is an important part of the design thinking process.



Empathy in Design

These two videos do a good job of defining empathy, and explaining why should it be a part of design.

In particular, watch for a description of the difference between empathy and sympathy.


Human-Centered Design for Rural Myanmar

First Step of Design: The Discover Phase

These two videos do a great job of depicting the empathy mode in action.

Watch for how design thinkers engage people in the context of their daily lives.


What are some methods for practicing empathy for design?

Method #1: What? How? Why?

This tool can help your students move from concrete observations to uncovering the potential emotions and motives at play in the observed situation. In the activity, your students will look at a photo of a particular situation and answer the following questions:

  • What are they doing in the photo?
  • How are they doing it?
  • Why are they doing it this way?


Setup: Divide a sheet of paper into three sections labeled “What,” “How,” and “Why.”

Start with concrete observations: Ask students to use descriptive phrases to describe the situation in the photograph.

Move to understanding: Use guiding questions to help students understand how the people in the situation are feeling. Some possible questions include:

  • How are the people doing what they are doing?
  • Does it require effort?
  • Do they appear rushed or pained?
  • Does the activity appear to be impacting the people’s state of being positively or negatively?

Step out on a limb of interpretation: Ask students to make informed guesses regarding the motivation and emotions of people in the photographed situation.


Method #2: Interview for Empathy

It is important for your students to plan and prepare for their interviews with the people they wish to design for.


Preparation: Ask students to begin by generating a list of potential questions, and then group the questions by themes or subject areas. With the questions grouped, the students should put them in an order that will allow the interview to flow naturally. Students may need to take out redundant questions or questions that seem out of place. Remind students that they should leave room in the plan for asking “why?” as well as questions directed at how the interviewee feels.


Some things for student interviewers to keep in mind:

  • Ask about specific instances or occurrences, such as “tell me about the last time you…”
  • Get people telling stories
  • Pay attention to nonverbal cues
  • Avoid questions that can be answered in one word
  • Keep questions short
  • Avoid suggesting an answer
  • Allow for silence
  • Interview in pairs, with one person taking notes, or use a voice recorder


If you would like to learn more about the design thinking process and how you can facilitate it with a group, take a look at this toolkit from Stanford’s d. School.


Can you think of a time that empathy helped you to solve a problem? Share your experience in the comments section below.

Images courtesy of Stanford d. School