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The Role of Empathy in Design Thinking

What is Design Thinking?

A number of years ago, my colleague Heike van Geel, shared the following definition of Design Thinking : 

What is Design Thinking?

Creating customer value is rooted in the ability to understand customer needs and what will enable them to reach their goals, but we often forget that customers are human;  a complex mixture of logic and emotion. Successful products and services appeal to both the rational side as well as the emotional side of human intelligence. Design Thinking provides a methodology for balancing these needs. Customers want products that will support them, increase their business opportunities, profitability and enables them to be innovative in their business processes. They also want products that speak to the emotions, products that are desirable. 

Design Thinking is not a prescriptive process or a set of standards and templates. It is not meant as a replacement for the organization’s standard development tools, cross-functional processes nor project management methods. Rather, Design Thinking works inside the project management structure, offering frameworks for collaboration and innovation, seeking input and participation from a wide range of stakeholders, each of whose domain expertise is valued and applied.

Design Thinking can be introduced at the beginning of new projects or to projects that are well underway. Its fluid nature allows teams to use the approach, regardless of when they begin applying it.

The core values of Design Thinking:

  • Have an Outside-in Perspective
  • Use Empathy for Users & Stakeholders
  • Embrace diversity
  • Think holistically
  • Collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams
  • Find & iterate alternatives
  • Fail early and often

Embracing Inclusion Driving Innovation

Last year, at SAP Teched in Las Vegas, Madrid and Bangalore we created an evening event (the link is to the summaries) that introduced some of the methodology of Design Thinking to the SAP TechEd participants in the context of a demographic challenge: How to create a more inclusive development environment, one that is multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-gendered and includes a respect for diverse perspectives. 

We particularly focused on the idea of “embracing diversity” or as we began to call it “Embracing Inclusion-Driving Innovation” (the link is to a blog by SAP Mentor Thorsten Franz about the event) and we also explored some of the other values of Design Thinking such as collaborating in multi-disciplinary teams.

The practices of Design Thinking are becoming ubiquitous in our SAP Developer EventsInnojams, and in our own SAP internal make cycles.

This year at SAP TechEd 2012 we shall expand our understanding of the language of Design Thinking to focus on the theme of Empathy and its role in design, or as Heike articulated it: “practicing empathy to derive insights for novel solutions”.

The Role of Empathy in Design Thinking

This year we will host an evening event at SAP TechEd LasVegas called:

The Role of Empathy in Design Thinking

When: Wednesday, October 17th, 7:30 p.m. – midnight (doors open at 7:15 p.m.) at SAP TechEd Las Vegas

Who:   Available at no extra charge to SAP TechEd registrants only

How:    First-come, first-served basis: advance sign-up is required for reserved seating.

Since Design Thinking starts with the ability to empathize, we will not only showcase what empathy means as part of the design thinking approach, we will also expose participants to the “how” of practicing empathy in the design process.

Additional Sources:

For more about Design Thinking at SAP, reference Heike’s blog: Spreading Design Thinking – a Practice Workshop

Listen to an audio blog hosted by Rui Nogueira Design Thinking at SAP

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  • Hello Marilyn,

    A valid post but I’m just wondering why this has been made into a theory and an actual practice that need to be taught?

    I see empathy as the natural and only way to provide a customer with a real benefit OR advice to any person in your life for that matter.

    If you don’t have empathy to position yourself with the customer rather than at the opposite side of the table you can’t bring any value to them whatsoever. Yes, you can tell them about this product and that service but the chances that they will relate and listen to you is probability zero.

    Out of interest, why was the methodology of Design Thinking created? Did you guys realize there was an actual need out there or what was the foundation for it all?

    • Hi  Hans Loekkegaard

      Thanks for visiting here and I appreciate your questions and comments.  While it may seem incredibly obvious as you yourself wrote that:

      If you don’t have empathy to position yourself with the customer rather than at the opposite side of the table you can’t bring any value to them whatsoever. Yes, you can tell them about this product and that service but the chances that they will relate and listen to you is probability zero.

      yet there are a number of people for whom the topic of empathy isn’t so obvious.

      I’ll try to answer your question to the best of my ability and I’ll start with a bit of a digression, if you’ll allow.

      And…I will also attempt to use “active listening” (as I understand it) to see if I’ve understood your questions and whether my answers are in any way “on mark”.

      A while ago I was asked why do we need to be taught or sensitized around the topic of inclusiveness and “Gender Intelligence”.  I mean, isn’t it obvious that men and women of equal skills and talent should have an equal seat at the table and be listened to in an equitable fashion, no matter what their culture, gender, age?  To many it may seem “there is no problem” .  Yet there is an organization making the case for Gender Intelligence and training.  I was fortunate enough to attend one of their workshops and my employer, SAP, was astute enough to understand that there is a need for such training, especially at the managerial level and perhaps especially for men (and women too) who think “there is no problem with diversity and inclusiveness” or “not in our backyard”.  I love the transparency that SAP has around the goal of increasing the number of women in management. (see Sustainablity Report) .  I also like the fact that there is acknowledgement how “far” we are from these goals, but how we are actively listening to address gaps and needs.

      You ask: Is there a need to teach the practice of empathy? (or that is what I understand you to be asking).  I’ll answer with a question: Have we really listened to our users and created software that is as beautiful as it is powerful?  Are we there yet?  Do we (as technologists and developers) become enamoured of our prowess to create powerful software while forgetting at times to really interview, absorb, understand, internalize and yes, empathize with our users needs and requirements?

      I’ll expand on this in later blog, but imagine if you will that you are a villager in Haiti, Africa, India, or in Appalachia (US), and you are an older adult who is neither fully literate nor computer literate.  Someone hands you an Iphone or another mobile device that has software that has the potential to help you enhance your productivity.  Can you use it?  Is it accessible to you?  Did the designer/developer truly think of “your” needs when creating the app?

      I guess you can see where this is going.

      We recognize that we fall short of doing the full dillegence of listening and understanding fully and so we actively work to address that gap.

      Now why was Design Thinking created?  I’d like to reference a short inquiry that was posited by Tim Brown of Ideo who is often credited with creating the methodology called Design Thinking.  If you have the time to read his blog entry and its comments I think you will find a number of good answers.  And, as in design thinking itself, there isn’t just “one answer” or one perspective. See: Definitions of Design Thinking

      I particularly love the comment on this blog that suggest we just calling this: Good Thinking.  Answering the “why” this was created.  Another comment I loved states:

      Design thinking is about the application of design methodologies to meeting and exceeding user/customer/client needs – whether for personal fulfillment, competitive advantage, or social or organizational change.

      Imagine exceeding customer needs.  I think that is what actually happened with some of Apple’s products.  That is a fairly ambitious goal.  Meeting that takes “new” , “good thinking” or perhaps just “smart good thinking” (nothing new except that it isn’t always employed).  Phew…don’t know if I’m on the right track in giving answers.  Do you wish to know why SAP began using it?  Heike van Geelcan probably share some of her experiences in the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam and in the d school in Stanford there is even a “crash course” there.

  • Hi Marilyn,

    I am looking forward to attend the similar session at TechEd Bangalore, this year. Could you please check the link provided for the workshop under Additional Sources? That did not work for me! Thanks.



    • thanks for the head’s up Kumud.  Actually I used the link twice inadvertantly.  The one that is left should be working now.  And it sounds like we will have a workshop in Bangalore but of course we will still need to coordinate and plan with our resources.

      I’m pretty excited about one new person I’m bringing into the arena and I hope he will be available in multiple locations when we get rolling.  Can’t wait to see you again in Bangalore.  You were such a key part of the successful energy of the workshop.

      The registration isn’t live but will be soon for Vegas.

  • Hope I get the chance to sign up!

    I’m curious: can empathy be taught or learned — or are you born with the capacity, or not? Or all of the above?

    • This is a very interesting question! Recently, I have read a book The One Thing You Need to Know in which the author says a Pessimist can never be changed to an Optimist. Training can only make him less pessimist and I agree with the author. I think few traits come naturally and cannot be completely developed via trainings.



      • In answer to Moya Watson ‘s question about whether empathy is inate or “teachable/learnable”  I would agree with Kumud (and the author Marcus Buckingham) in the thinking that there are traits that cannot be fully develped or developed “completely” via training.  But having a set of tools and a practice and being more aware is often going to create some kind of transformation of thinking and being.  Even a small step in moving the empathy dial can be significant.  For example: active listening.  There are some very good tips around improving your listening in this Mind Tools website.  I noticed that my guest speaker for the event uses that technique in his communication with me presently and I find it instructive and powerful.  I am NOT a good listener by nature.  But being aware of the shortcoming and consciously working to have a practice of hearing what others are saying has improved relationships with my some of my fellow planet residents and I’d like to think that I have progressed somewhat …although I’ll always be struggling to be fully present to what someone is saying because my brain chemistry and my nature works in a way that has my mind racing while I’m attempting to listen.  I think I’ve discovered an interesting speaker with a fascinating practice and without giving too much away, I imagine the workshop will be quite mind bending for those who have flexible enough minds to let them bend. 😉

        I’ll begin to post more about the event as the date comes closer. And Moya, I’m hoping that you will have a very visible part of the evening.  What do you mean you “hope” you get the chance to sign up?  I’ll reserve a seat LOL.

  • Hi Marylin,

    very straight and well articulated blog! Thx !

    is Design Thinking reformulating the User Centered Design concepts ?

    !! Heike’s blog link is broken !



  • Hi Marilyn,

    This sounds like another very interesting evening waiting for us, after last year. I’m pretty sure I’d better reserve the Wed night in Madrid for it too. I mean, you’re not going to do all this empathy stuff only in LV right? 🙂

    Thanks for reposting ‘the definition’ of DT again, especially the part about it not being a prescriptive process is worth remembering, because IMO the tendency is to make it exactly that (more structure = more control?)

    I hope to finally experience DT at Innojam Madrid, and to be prepared for the Empathy-workshop after that.

    Cheers, Fred

    • Hi Fred,

      I think we can safely say that we aren’t reserving Empathy for “only” SAP TechEd Las Vegas.  Glad to hear you are attending SAP InnoJam Madrid.  I’ll be there too, and excited that DT has become more mainstream in our developer activities.  And yes, please save a spot in your schedule for Wednesday night. 


  • Hi Marilyn,

    I am very excited to see what the event will bring this year. As you already know and I also mentioned in the last SAP Mentors Quarterly, meeting you and Heike and participating in the “Embracing Inclusion-Driving Innovation” event in Madrid have opened my mind and made me see things in a different way. Looking forward to meeting you in LV.

    Best Regards,


    • So glad you are attending in Las Vegas.  This year’s event will bring some surprises, not least of which will be a speaker/facilitator to “blow your socks off”.  Hope you will be at Innojam as well so we can pull you in to some more *evil* plans.  Are you game?

  • Hi Marilyn,

    SInce I had already accepted an invitation to the SAP Tech Ed HANA evening seminar that coincided chronologically with the event you are hosting, I was quite unhappy that I had to reluctantly decline!  As TIMET’s Business Application Architect, I can definitely understand the importance of empathy in appropriate design thinking.  I have no doubt this session would have provided valuable insight.  I’d be quite interested in any materials, recordings and/or information you could forward?  Any effort you could make would help mitigate my disapointment!

    Many Thanks,

    Eric Berinson

    • I’m so glad this session resonates with you and very sorry that you cannot attend (life is full of choices and a HANA seminar is a good one!).  The beauty(truth?) of the session should lie in the insights, as you rightfully identify.  The usual course of response is that people attending provide their feedbacks and create artifacts here on SCN.  In fact we did iterations of improvements and changes during the series of events we held in 2011 based on very valuable “critique” that we received immediately after last year’s first event in Las Vegas and thus improved the format for the subsequent Madrid and Bangalore sessions.

      So some of the information will indeed be a product of the interest, learnings, feedback from participants and we will consolidate them as we have done in the past.  Heike van Geelis evangelizes the idea of having a Design Thinking community space here on SCN.  The more voices join that lobby the faster we get that done.  In the interim we are using the wiki space: Last year’s Design Thinking evening event is summarized in the links on the wiki for each event.  While I don’t believe there will be full video capture, you remind me that I should remind us all to do some personal citizen journalism.  I’ll commit to taking my video camera myself and capturing some pieces if that helps allay your disappointment.  Thanks so much for articulating your request here.

    • Thanks for asking Chris.  Am in the process of creating more information to publish.  But here’s a broad hint: We will host evenings in Vegas, Amsterdam and Bangalore that focus on Failure.  Owning it, learning from it, succeeding with it.  You in?