In seeking to transform our organisations, one of the biggest challenges we face is changing human behaviours, and the organisational cultures that shape them. This post looks at the role empathy and empathic design can play in creating the systematic change required of 21st-century organisations. 

Empathy has long been recognised as an essential part of the design process. Understanding the needs of who it is you’re designing for is necessary to develop meaningful solutions to their contextual challenges. A strand of human-centred design, empathic design principles stipulate learning about user needs through a process of observation and interpretation.

Empathic design, though often used for customer product and service improvement, can also be used to aid in the democratisation and humanisation of internal processes. Through the empathic design framework, not only can resistance to change be met with reassurance, but changes can be co-designed with those the change directly affects. By involving all stakeholders in the design process, we can encourage the long-term behaviour change necessary for survival in the digital age.

As we discussed the framework in the office, a colleague drew the connection between empathic design and ‘Go to Gemba’, a management technique designed by Toyota. In Japanese, Gemba means “the place the truth can be found”, and the practice involves managers and leaders observing a problem to understand its full impact. Empathic design also seeks to uncover the truth that is hidden from companies about how they can improve their products, services or experiences.

The salient point of the empathic design process is researching user needs through observation. Through observing users, as opposed to relying on their feedback, designers can be led to solutions users were not aware they wanted or didn’t know were even possible due to lack of technical or market knowledge.

“The aim of empathic design studies is not to seek solutions for recognized problems, but rather to look for design opportunities as well as develop a holistic understanding of the users. Design empathy is not only information and facts but also inspiration and food for ideas.”
— Tuuli Mattelmäki, Design researcher and lecturer

Although improving organisational efficiency and work processes falls outside of the traditional realm of design, by treating these problems as design issues, empathic design processes can help us to find solutions to these complex, systemic challenges. A champion of this approach, design company IDEO, has put the methodology into practice by using it to solve organisational design challenges such as creating shared visions, designing employee experiences, and expanding organisational capabilities.

The complexities of human psychology ensure organisational behaviour change is not as straightforward as simply ordering people around. Pushback to change is common and happens for a variety of (usually understandable) reasons. Through empathic design, employees can be co-designers, reclaiming their autonomy in a period which is otherwise anxiety-inducing.

In our experience, exercising empathy is a powerful way to democratise and empower teams, silence the nay-sayers, and create new systems which work for everyone. Below is some further reading on the topic: