I stumbled across the Kano Model this morning, and didn’t know what it was. Searching for it I came across another term unknown to me; Empathic Design. Reading the characteristics of Empathic Design on Wikipedia (as we do when we want to get a jump start in learning something new) it look too familiar to not be a part of User Centered Design:

The foundation of empathic design is observation and the goal is to identify latent customer needs in order to create products that the customers don’t even know they desire or, in some cases, solutions that customers have difficulty envisioning due to lack of familiarity with the possibilities offered by new technologies or because locked in an old mindset. Empathic design relies on observation of consumers as opposed to traditional market research which relies on consumer inquiry with the intention to avoid possible biases in surveys and questions, and minimizes the chance that consumers will provide false information.

Even in the very beginning of the article - it is clearly stated that the answer to my question is yes...

Empathic design is a user-centered design approach

Still, when searching on UX.SE this isn’t mentioned – anywhere. So either this concept is not a part of User Centered Design – or we all missed this particular class?! Anyhow, the question remains is Empathic Design a part of User Centered Design?

  • Wouldn't we say that it's a kind of an UCD? (Not a part of)... It would be just the same as if you had defined your own UCD process where certain UX aspects were handled. That process would also be "an UCD approach", but the UCD documentation wouldn't necessarily need to know about (or refer to) your process. Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 14:01

1 Answer 1


I would argue that denotatively speaking empathy (identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives) is a basic tenet of UCD.

Empathic Design is a specific intellectual construct with its own connotations. In the Wikipedia entry you linked, the Empathic Design process is as follows:

  1. Observation
  2. Capturing Data
  3. Reflection and Analysis
  4. Brainstorming for solutions
  5. Developing prototypes of possible solutions

The ISO standard for UCD has the following requirements:

  1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  2. Users are involved throughout design and development.
  3. The design is driven and refined by user-centred evaluation.
  4. The process is iterative.
  5. The design addresses the whole user experience.
  6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

The two are not incompatible. A recent study of Emphatic Design within the context of industrial product development defines it as a subset of UCD:

Empathic design is a design research approach that is directed towards building creative understanding of users and their everyday lives for new product development (NPD). Creative understanding is the combination of a rich, cognitive and affective understanding, and the ability to translate this understanding into user-centered products and services (Wright & McCarthy, 2005). It draws on information about the user and his/her everyday life, and it includes inspiration for design and empathy, or ‘a feel’ for the user (Postma, Lauche, & Stappers, 2009). The empathic design approach is considered most valuable in the early stages of NPD, when product opportunities need to be identified and product concepts developed (Koskinen & Battarbee, 2003).

One of the critiques of UCD is that it is not innovative:

Nothing revolutionary or innovative can result from the established user-centered design process that places user desires at the apex. I’ll give the classic example to illustrate: Could the iPod have come from a user-centered design (UCD) process? Of course not – if Apple had asked what type of music player people wanted, the answers would have been about a better CD player – smaller, better, fewer skips, maybe easier to hold, but a CD player nonetheless.

Some detractors of UCD's "participatory design process" subscribe to the "genius designer theory":

Genius design is broadly understood as one visionary person with a point of view that conceives an idea so innovative it would be impossible to obtain it by asking users what they want. Its biggest argument is: users don’t know what they want, and only the genius can come up with a true leap-forward.

Empathic Design is a specific type of "participatory design" which comes from the UCD school of thought. The debate of genius vs participatory design aside, in that larger context it is clear that Empathic Design's relationship to the overarching UCD philosophic point of view put the two in the same family tree.

As a user-centered approach Empathic Design is gaining an understanding of the user's needs and desires even if they are not consciously articulated or apparent to the user. It is a "design research approach" for addressing the "innovation" deficiency in the way UCD is commonly practiced, and in the future could become more relevant as UCD evolves in theory and practice.

  • 1
    Props to you sir for an exceedingly good answer! +1 Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 0:04

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