The Importance of Empathic Design in a Problem-Solving Team

When we hear the word “design” we often associate it with that one person on our team that knows how to use Photoshop, which is true in its nature! In most digital agencies, what is often overlooked in this aspect is that design becomes solely dependent on pleasant aesthetics and whoever you hired as your designer, when in reality design should be an attribute that each of your team members understand and use in developing any process. Yes, even your CEO should understand how to design – and I don’t mean with Photoshop.

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In simplicity, design means to put together variables to create an easier and effective channel of communication. When you are an Event Manager, you design your booths in a certain arrangement to take into account the flow of your customers (ex: is it easy to get in and out of your venue? Are the bathrooms accessible in every area?). As a Project Manager, you design a process of communication that works best between you, your client and your team to make sure information gets passed to its necessary targets without missing pieces. The best teams members to have are the ones that aren’t scared to continuously design, develop, test, and execute their work process in order to achieve the results they need with the least amount of collateral damage along the way.

As a designer, what you create should aim to be a solution, or at least should contribute towards one. You must understand that it is not enough to make something simply look better. When you have many heads in a team trying to solve the same problem, some may lose track of the fundamentals to succeed and friction can happen during the collaborative production period. When you are in the position of the creative lead in the project, the most important alignment to have with both your teammates and your client is understanding empathic design.

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Before we elaborate, let’s go back to the question: what even is design?

Design is the ability to combine form and function, in which form is the design principals implemented and function is the purpose of the design. Good design is effective visual communication. Designers have been around for generations and it is proven that it is not the tools you have access to that makes you a good designer, it is how you understand, develop, and execute your design process that will determine if the visuals you have produced communicate the message you’re aiming for. As a designer in the industry you can make things look nice but if it doesn’t contribute to solving the initial issue, it may not be such a good design after all.

The foundation of empathic design is observation and the goal to identify your user’s undiscovered needs. Empathic design theory is understanding the behavior of how people interact with what you have built as a designer and seeing where you can improve their experience. Essentially it emphasizes observation of consumers as opposed to just traditional market research, giving you more insight into the study of your product. The reason why understanding this theory is important in a team is because it allows everyone to put the user first, creating a priority that the whole team can work towards in synergy.

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Successful teams that practice empathic design can achieve improvement in their products with potentially shorter development periods. Often we forget that the users are just as involved in product design as your designers & developers, and the potential to make irrelevant decisions based on the team’s or client’s opinions increases. This leads to disorganized expectations and an array of feedback that can be more detrimental to the product during the development stage.

When clients ask for their assets to be redesigned, aesthetics is usually the last problem they are looking to solve. As you read between the lines of your client’s brief and look into their stress points they are most likely highlighting where their operating procedures have failed and prioritizing how to redevelop their internal systems in order to attract and retain users to their product. So as a designer, how can you solve their problem with the tools that you have? How can you steer the boat that consists of six ambitious team members to row into the same direction that it should be pointing towards?

In any start-up we are all familiar of the vicious feedback cycle that can stretch to uncomfortable lengths if not managed properly. As the creative lead, to keep your clients and team members aligned in their expectations of the final product outcome you must manage and remind them that the user’s experience is the priority. Maybe that extra shade of green is not going to matter during the later stages of your product design because you have captured that necessary data through observation, reflection, and development with your users. This is why practicing the theories of empathic design and applying it throughout all stages of your production is important in a solution-oriented team and ultimately can release tension between creatives and managers.

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