What is Design Thinking? Part One: Empathize

Design Thinking

Driving through the upper parts of Georgia into the mountains of North Carolina, my wife asks me if I’m familiar with the Design Method or Design Thinking? Being with me since the origination of my content writing company — she knows that I’m not only a curious critter, but I write quite often about professional theories, methods, and/or processes.  The majority of which I couldn’t tell you what they mean — I simply know the words used to describe them.

As she outlined what Design Thinking is comprised of, my mind started to scurry. Which wasn’t good. For you see, the mountain we were climbing was as windy as Lombard St. in San Francisco. Except the speed limit was 45 and I had a Ford 150 on my ass toting a gun rack and immense pride in losing wars and elections.

Regardless, when she concluded, and Jim Billy finally passed me — I realized the parallel between this process — a process commonly used by web designers in Vermont like my friend Jon Gicewicz of JEG DESIGN INC — and how this could be used in what business owners do in every day. No matter the profession or business venture.

After a good amount of Google searches, I found what I was looking for — The Five phases of Design Thinking:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • And Test

For this next series of blogs, I’ll provide a breakdown of each phase and attempt to draw the lines from how a designer uses this and how you can implement it into your world.

Or in other words, this may be a self-help blog for your business from the perspective of the guy who made your website.

With that, to understand, let’s start with understanding. And by understanding I clearly mean…


Okay, I just want to take a second and note something — the majority of this is coming straight from Stanford University.  You know, the football team that has a Christmas tree as a mascot?

But rumor has it — despite having a rabid tree lead cheers of “Go Team Go!” — they’re pretty, pretty smart at Stanford. Whatever I just know I couldn’t be a janitor there.

Now that we got that established — Empathize, the first step of the design process is defined: “To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.”

When a designer sits down with a prospective client, they typically ask, who will be using this site? Or in other words, who is your target audience?

Whether you call it your demographic or buyer persona — the person opening your door or URL is more than a statistic. You have to imagine this person coming home from a long day of work and finding a burst pipe in the kitchen.  You need to put yourself in their shoes and figure out why it’s YOUR plumbing company that gets the call and not the company down the street with the cute plunger cartoon.  (Yes, for the sake of this blog, you’re a plumber).

Put differently — you have to figure out what problem you’re solving and the person most likely to have said problem, right? Granted, this won’t always be the case, but this is an exercise in putting yourself in their shoes and feeling how much it sucks to see two inches of dirty water saturating their freshly installed travertine tile.

But I and the fine folks at Standford’s Hasso Platner Institute of Design get this might not be the easiest thing for you to grasp. Maybe you were born into your business and deciphering between a basin wrench and a faucet wrench was taught to you before you knew your ABCs. So, let’s teach you a few ways that a designer empathizes with their customers, so you can with yours.


Remember the first time you learned how to replace a toilet or how to do anything for that matter? I’m sure there was someone there to show you how to do it.  A designer must, they absolutely must get a feel for how their client does what they do. This is so the website or graphic design they’re constructing strikes a tone that embodies who or what their client is.

And that’s the first step, observeTo truly empathize, you must view user and their behavior in the context of their lives.  

Next is engaging them.  For a designer, they’ll sit and interview the prospective client. Get a feel for what a day in their life consists of.

  • Is it hectic?
  • Fast-paced?
  • Or methodical, with ample time to give every decision what it needs before a conclusion happens?

For you, it may entail asking for reviews from previous customers. And if you’re a fresh business that doesn’t have any customers/clients quite yet — find someone who will or has needed your service, and just have a conversation.

And this takes us to the last step of how to empathize, and it may be the hardest — watch and listen. Don’t think. Don’t overtalk. Don’t completely shut them down by force-feeding them how great you are and how perfect your company is for them. Watch how they behave and listen to what they said. But note, a designer will sometimes ask their clients to perform a task for them. And by doing so, they can see the grace, calmness, and composure that the plumber displays when stopping the water from vomiting all over the homeowner’s rustic walnut countertops. How they know, without a shadow of a doubt, this leak will cease to exist.

Does this seem doable? Good. Now you’re ready to Design. But how do you do that?


Consuming copious amounts of information can and will overwhelm. Once the above stages are complete — the designer has a plethora of pages about their client, their client’s client’s, their client’s family, and their client’s client’s family. So, unpacking that information can be an arduous task. But make sure it’s done and you allow yourself the time to process it all. National Football League (NFL) coaches have this camera view called the All 22. It is positioned so high they can see the entire field, in particular, every single player out there. Give that gift to you.

Take a look at it all, and from there you will start to formulate a map. Making connections to who it is you’re helping and how you’re helping them. This is how you begin. And in the next blog, we get busy with the real work.  With fixing the problems your company has set out to solve.

We’ll see you there.

Oh, and if you or your company want a free estimate about any of your graphic and/or web design needs — contact JEG DESIGN INC today!

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Written by Keith Hannigan. Keith is the co-owner and Chief Writer at SBI Content Creation LLC. A content writing company just outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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Photo by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash