Developing empathy as a key to boosting innovative solutions

Developing empathy as a key to boosting innovative solutions

Innovations have rapidly become a buzzword in many areas from business to governance. Yet, merely a few understand how to apply innovative approaches in their work. In this context, design thinking management has become an efficient tool to help navigate and drive innovative solutions. The core of design thinking is focusing on “deep empathy for end-user desires, needs and challenges to fully understand a problem in hopes of developing more comprehensive and effective solutions1. It sounds theoretically simple, yet it is challenging in action. 

The design thinking cycle complements 5 main stages: Emphasizing, Defining Problems, Ideating, Prototyping and Testing. Once the cycle ends, it goes to the start and hence it creates an ongoing reflection-testing process. Although all five stages are important, emphasizing is a bedrock for successful innovative solutions. 

Empathy implies a deep understanding of feeling and needs of the user and identifying that would automatically drive to the problem definitions. The first stage is admittedly a pivotal point to launch all the process which is, unsurprisingly, quite challenging. Relating to unfamiliar feelings needs and emotions is not the easiest task; however, it is imperative at this particular stage. To gain this understanding you can try various methods. The most common is to listen to users. Conducting sociological qualitative research would be a good way to find missing insights. It is still worth highlighting that the sociological approach requires inviting a professional sociologist who understands how to build up the questions to expose implicit customers desires. You can also go radical and simulate the user-experience. Do you work with people with disabilities? Try to live a day like them. Probably, you will find out that ramp slope at your office is too big for somebody who uses a wheelchair. 

It is also important to monitor the teams’ dynamics. At a particular stage, you might feel that you are aware enough regarding the user experience and, consequently, will apply already known problem-solving patterns which might merely work at the beginning but eventually will not any desired result. In this particular stage, it will be useful to hear a voice from the outside, or in other words, to ask for external expertise. 

Finally, it is worth noting that empathy is about active listening, meanwhile, the reluctance to listen will undermine all empathic process. An ability to listen is an integral component which plays a crucial role in developing empathic competence, so listen actively, and you will hear needed insights; listen actively to your users, the outside experts and you will define the problem. Value the voice of others as your own – that is a key to empathic competence that will lead you to an innovative solution.


1Roberts, J. P., Fisher, T. R., Trowbridge, M. J., & Bent, C. (2016). A design thinking framework for healthcare management and innovation. Healthcare, 4(1), 11–14. doi: 10.1016/j.hjdsi.2015.12.002 

By Anastasiia Popova