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Ash RoyAug 9, 2022 7:47:03 PM8 min read

Empathy in design thinking

Introduction: The power of design thinking in technology

Discovering the true impact of design in technology isn't just about using a new gadget. 

It's about a remarkable user experience born out of solving the users' pain points in the simplest and most efficient way possible using a product that defers to the user.

When you understand the importance of empathy as the first step to product design, you're more likely to design solutions that build an emotional connection with end users.

Empathetic Design: The Core of Apple's Success

An empathetic approach to the design thinking process requires ux designers to spend inordinate amounts of time walking in the user's shoes, doing detailed user research, asking open-ended questions, so they can come up with new insights that solve real human needs.

Apple's design choices have seen empathetic research and user-centered solutions play a critical role in their design process.

Steve Jobs: A Visionary's Approach to User-Centric Design

While Steve Jobs was known for not being a big fan of focus groups, he was always looking for deeper insights and was constantly engaged in active listening so he could deeply understand the real needs of real people.

He was able to observe users in their everyday life and step aside from his own preconceived notions of what the product should look like.

His ability to understand his target audience was the starting point of his design process. He was able to anticipate his potential users emotional needs. 

A Personal Journey: From Skeptic to Believer in Apple's Philosophy

My first encounter with an iPod — my first Apple product — not only changed my perspective on Apple's products, but also taught me the profound role of empathy and meticulous design. 

You see, back in 2008, I used to be an “Apple hater” like several others around me.

Without questioning it, I’d bought into the narrative that all Apple was all about (marketing) hype and that their products were ridiculously overpriced. 

The thing is ... I’d never actually owned an apple product.

Perhaps "experienced" is a better word. Because my first interaction with the Apple brand was exactly that ... an experience! (More on this shortly.)

 Up until 2008, I'd only ever used PCs. I worked as a financial and strategic analyst in the banking sector. Microsoft Excel on windows was my "weapon of choice". 

The Mac OS platform was unfamiliar to me.

The mp3 player revolution had just begun, and I'd recently acquired a cheap (unbranded) mp3 player in Singapore during an overseas trip. It did a perfectly decent job of playing the music I wanted.  

But I’d see people with these iPods everywhere. On the trains, in buses, waiting in queues.

People walking around on the streets with furrowed brows intensely focused on their little machines.  White headphones sticking out of their ears.

They'd poke away at the iPod and seemed to be clicking on some kind of a wheel on the face of the device.

I was bemused. 

I mean ... these things just played music, right? Why were these things so popular?

I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. 

My first experience with the Apple iPod

As it turned out I happened to work right across the street from the Sydney Apple store at the time.

Each day at lunchtime, I’d notice this throng of Apple fans at the apple store.

That’s where these mysterious iPods came from!

I was intrigued. I had to see one of these things for myself.

So, one day at lunchtime, I went across to the store to satisfy my curiosity.

I was greeted by an Apple employee at the door which felt kinda cheesy.

“Who does that?” I thought. That’s just weird. (Little did I know that this was going to become common practice in retail a few years later.)

I asked the person at the door where I could see one of the iPods. Beaming with excitement, he escorted me to a row of iPods neatly arranged on one of the several stark wooden tables.

My chaperone's enthusiasm was palpable. You'd be forgiven for believing he'd created these iPods himself!

The store was immaculate!

It was simple but beautiful.  All the sales staff were dressed in simple blue T-shirts and appeared to be as enthusiastic as my chaperone.

(For the sake of clarity, I would like to point out that blue T-shirts weren't the only thing the sales staff were wearing. They were wearing trousers/skirts too but I didn't mention those in the previous sentence because that clearly wasn't part of the "uniform" and didn't seem relevant.

But yea ... they were fully dressed. And for that I'm grateful.

 I mean ... the image of grown men and women walking around in blue t-shirts with no pants on is kinda hard to unsee. 

That would look like adult daycare and would certainly take the focus off the iPods)

Anyway ... I digress. Back to the iPods ...

The iPod experience

I was stunned at how elegant and simple the device was. It was thin and beautiful in its simplicity. The matte finish was gorgeous in an understated kind of way. 

The tactile experience was unique. Like nothing, I’d experienced before.

I picked up the iPod and noticed it had a slightly grainy feel. That was somehow reassuring. It felt beautiful!

The click wheel was friendly and approachable.

Easy to use.

As I explored the intuitive interface, the click wheel let me cycle through songs as quickly, or slowly as I liked. It responded to my touch instantly. 

I noticed a feeling that I hadn't experienced around tech before ... a feeling of delight!

This device yielded to me as a user in a way that nothing else had in the past.

I started to fall in love … with the device ... the form factor .... and the user experience.

And I hadn’t even listened to a song on this thing yet!

 I plugged in a pair of my own headphones. The audio was outstanding!

Every aspect of the device felt “insanely great” (a phrase Steve Jobs often used).

That was my first amazing experience with Apple — The first of many!

Behind Apple's Design: A Team Focused on Empathy and Excellence

I later learned that the design team at Apple spent months and years designing their products with insane amounts of care. This approach to their design process led to much insight and better solutions.

Empathetic research which focuses on the user's perspective is at the core of design. Most successful design thinkers consider the users needs carefully when making design decisions.

And I'm talking about every last detail! Like thinking about how the user might perceive the product and designing rounded corners so the devices “felt” friendlier and more approachable.

Empathy was at the heart of their approach to design.

In an article titled “The Guts of a new machine” Steve Jobs was quoted as saying this about design:

“It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Jony Ive spoke about creating devices that genuflected for the user.

Design that yielded to the user experience.

Here's a video of Jony speaking about how they made the iPhone yield to the user by creating curved sides so the screen felt smaller than it actually was when the user picked it up. (He talks about it at the 7-minute and 30-second mark.)




Jony also spoke about the importance of care when designing products. Here's a snippet of a conversation he had with Charlie Rose.




Tony Fadell — The Podfather

Steve Jobs and Jony Ive were just two people on the team. It took a LOT of great talent and several geniuses to create those great products. 

As Guy Kawasaki told me in this conversation, there are at least two stories about how the iPod came to be.

But in my opinion, the iPod wouldn't have existed as we know it if it wasn't for Tony Fadell aka the Podfather!

If you'd like to know more about how the iPod was created I recommend reading Tony Fadell's book titled Build.

I also recommend watching the documentary, General Magic.

They're both fascinating and I'm going to be revisiting them for years to come.

The Essence of Design Thinking in Apple's Product Strategy

Apple's objective was simple: Create great products focused on delivering a magical user experience.

Most of Apple’s success in that era came down to creating products that were:

  • simple
  • functional
  • minimalistic 
  • beautiful and
  • easy to use

.... from the customer's perspective. 

Delivering products that achieved these things demanded a deep level of empathy.

Empathy drove decisions around which features to include and more importantly which features to exclude.

Apple had developed the capacity to understand what the customer really wanted (often before the customer knew what they wanted themselves). This was the best way to connect with them at an emotional level and deliver great experiences to real users.

Jobs once said:

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

And while this could be seen as a sign of hubris, Jobs had done years of hard work and had probably earned the right to make that comment. Apple's products in Steve's era bore this out. 

According to some, Apple's approach to design was a product of design thinking which has empathy at its core.

Steve, Jony, and the rest of the design team had certainly achieved something great with the iPod!

Apple went on to release several other devices during Steve’s era that delivered an outstanding experience.

Developing Empathy: How You Can Understand Your Customers Better

How do you develop empathy for your customers?

I recommend this empathy mapping framework

 It's a great place to start.


Ash Roy

Ash Roy has spent over 15 years working in the corporate world as a financial and strategic analyst and advisor to large multinational banks and telecommunications companies. He suffered through a CPA in 1997 and completed it despite not liking it at all because he believed it was a valuable skill to have. He sacrificed his personality in the process. In 2004 he finished his MBA (Masters In Business Administration) from the Australian Graduate School of Management and loved it! He scored a distinction (average) and got his personality back too!