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Author's profile photo Deepa Iyer

The Power of Storytelling to Build Empathy

A fundamental principle of Design Thinking is empathy– the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. One of the key tools that we, as Design Thinking coaches, use in workshops is the attempt to invoke and build empathy through Storytelling.  Storytelling is typically an exercise that we do during the Synthesis phase. In the Design Thinking approach, the Synthesis phases follows Research phase. In Synthesis, we analyze the data collected during Research and derive insights by applying various tools. The goal of the storytelling exercise is to share the raw data collected during the Research phase with your teammates. (Read the blog on User Research by my colleague Lucky for a quick primer on Research).

Storytelling puts the data collected in context to the different users and stakeholders by trying to make sense of it all. The result of good storytelling is empathy for your user and in some cases actually gain a better understanding of who the users are. You start to feel their pain, truly understand their real needs, and maybe even uncover hidden needs.  This new perspective allows you to articulate the needs in a way your users have not been able to.

dexter 2.jpg

Photo source: Dexter – Season 1 – Episode 1 – Dexter – Showtime

Can the bad guys be the good guys?

To illustrate how powerful stories can be, let me use 2 television shows on cable tv that tell powerful stories of their protagonists who are antiheros in the normal world. I am talking about Dexter Morgan and Walter White. 

Dexter Morgan from the Showtime series Dexter is just your garden variety forensics expert in the Miami police department. However, he has a dark side- he is a serial killer who abides by a code to kill the bad guys (and gals).  So why then do fans want Dexter to not get caught, to live happily ever after?

Walter White of the hugely popular AMC series Breaking Bad is a chemistry teacher leading a normal life until cancer hits at age 50. He decides to get into the drug business to ensure financial security for his family in his absence. He essentially starts to establish a drug empire and cuts no corners when it comes to his family’s safety.  Why then do we want Walt to win so bad- to escape from his enemies and the law? To beat cancer and live?

If fans of the 2 shows are anything like me, I would say fans have developed empathy for Dexter and Walt. We aren’t interested in personally going after bad guys and drug lords, but we understand why they feel it is their job to do so. We have gained insight into their true motivations and reasoning and that allows fans to root for the untraditional antiheros to be happy, to win against all odds.


Photo source:

This was accomplished through excellent story telling by the shows’ writers, cast and crew- building the story, peeling back the layers of the characters so you start to see their pain and can empathize with them such that you so want them to succeed.

Stories make us feel emotions, activating different parts of the brain, than it would, if you were to just listen to a list of facts. Stories help you make the connections- see how your users’ interactions with people, processes or systems make them think, feel or react in a certain way. When we hear stories, we try to relate to it by thinking of our own experiences, making us feel happiness or pain. This seems to be the way human beings are wired!

Storytelling can be a very powerful exercise in Design Thinking. It helps the designers/teams/participants of the approach to empathize with their users’ pain points, needs, aspirations, goals, uncover needs and build a solution that works for them.

Have you ever found yourself feeling bad for the villain or the bad guy of a movie, show or book? What did you learn about them that made you empathize with them? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

See you at SAPPHIRE NOW! I invite you to come chat with me (and other DT coaches from Services) at the Services Lounges at Sapphire Jun 3-5th or sign up for the DT education session on Jun 5th.

Follow me  @IyerD

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Great blog Deepa. I liked the tie in with Dexter and Walter, two of my favorite TV characters.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      I don't think it's a coincidence that Agile methodologies talk about stories - the format of As an <actor> I <want to do something> immediately forces us to empathise with the actor in question, and try to perceive the worlds from their point of view.

      I think where story telling becomes especially helpful, is working with those, who perhaps find it harder to empathise. I've been working a lot with HR applications recently, and I've often found that you interact with people who empathise well with the service side (lots of people to look after, lots of things to get cleared up, lots of hard and difficult problems to work with), but less well with the average user (a manager using HR processes a few times a month for a fairly small team for example). Story telling allows me to place those people into a context, and adopt a different point of view temporarily.

      As for empathising with the bad guys - well, I loved Breaking Bad, and it's fun trying to empathise with Walt, sometimes easy, sometimes very hard, sometimes impossible - but I think it's a great example, as so often in the real world of design practice, I do have to empathise with people who do not look at the world the same way I do…

      Author's profile photo Amanda Martins
      Amanda Martins

      Nice article! Congrats

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Great content and realy nice to read. Written like a true story

      Author's profile photo Amala Srinivasa Rao
      Amala Srinivasa Rao

      Amazing 🙂

      Author's profile photo EMANUELA CORAZZIARI

      well done!