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Empathy’s Fundamental Part in Design Thinking

28 Aug 2023 5:58 AM | Sewa International (Administrator)

Date: 28th Aug, 2023
Author: Aditi Bankhele,
Sophomore, Stevenson High School, Chicago Chapter

Merriam-Webster describes empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. That definition perfectly encapsulates the elements that are needed for the Design To Lead Program. Every phase that we go through of DTL is dependent on the connections that we can make with people within our community.

As you begin the program, it’s essential to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. While many times, the words are seen as synonymous, there are some major differences. The video, “Design Thinking- The Power of Empathy,” describes, “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.” What this essentially means is that empathy makes it possible to understand people, because you are putting yourself in their shoes. On the other hand, sympathy would be looking at people from an external perspective, and feeling bad for them. By putting yourself in the shoes of others, you are connecting with people, and that is going to make a huge difference.

Empathy makes it possible to understand the most significant problems to focus on within our community. When searching for these problems, qualitative and quantitative analysis is really important for your project. Quantitative data will be found with specific numbers and statistics, most of which can be a part of more general research. Empathy, on the other hand, is imperative to qualitative research. As a part of your qualitative study, you should focus on the problem/ pain point identification, as well as noting the feelings and needs of the people you wish to focus on. It’s essential to take multiple perspectives, and also try to stay out of judgment, assumptions, and biases. Using research, interviews, surveys, journals, and body language will make your qualitative and quantitative data solid and reliable. This study will give you an insight into the problem areas you want to focus on.

With the observations that are made from understanding your community, it will be possible to understand the problem, population, and intended outcome of your project. The only way to properly know what you want to do is to understand the group you want to target, by switching to their point of view.

When my group was talking to new people, we came across a lot of varied perspectives. For some context, my group worked in the Chicago area. Our problem area was around chronic illnesses that underserved adults in our community dealt with. We met with a medical professional named Ms. Ashley Colwell. She works as the Vice President of Clinical Services and Workforce Development with patients at a clinic designed for underserved community members. This clinic is a part of the Illinois Primary Health Care Association. We also met with a professional who worked at a more general clinic in Chicago. They both shared their insights into working with patients.

Colewell’s perspective of working with patients was incredibly different from that of the medical professional working at a more general clinic. When we compared the differences they had working with patients, we were able to conclude the problems that underserved patients deal with versus those of middle-class patients. Our research showed that underserved patients had a greater use of emergency rooms, compared to middle-class patients. This was a result of the underserved communities having fewer general check-ups, and not having proper access to healthcare. These differences helped us understand what we needed to focus on. As the innovators we had the advantage of understanding what the root of the problem was from the inside. When you work with stakeholders you’ll be able to understand the importance of varied perspectives.

Another benefit of forming a connection is that it'll give you a stronger attachment to your innovation. When you know the people that you want to help, you’ll feel more inclined to make a difference. If not your topic, interacting and connecting with community members will make you keep working towards your goal. Forming connections with different groups of people will also help you in general as a community member. “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”


Forbes - Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research, Tracy Brower PhD, Sep 19, 2021

Design Thinking- The Power of Empathy, Crie UFRJ, Aug 1, 2014

1. Design Thinking: Empathize - YouTube, Mindful Marks, Jun 9, 2018

Additional Resources

What Is Empathy and Why Is It So Important in Design Thinking? | IxDF, Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang, 2020

Sympathy vs. Empathy: What's the Difference?, Pam Weber, Sep 10, 2022

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