Design Thinking #1; to empathise or to rationally sympathise? That’s the question.


At room44, we’re keen advocates of the Design Thinking methodology, and committed to innovation strategy as the central driver for business development. As I’ve written many times now, we believe that innovation must be a core function in any business hoping to survive the new age.

The new age? An era when the development of technological functionality is outpacing product design and understanding. A time when we have five generations in the workplace at the same time. When Baby Boomers are working long into their 70s and Millennials could be looking at careers spanning 80 years. When everything we know about insurance, banking, personal transport, communications and community has changed and continues to evolve exponentially. A time when technology is readily adopted and feared in equal measure.


The success rate for new product and service ideas is low. Part of this is because new ideas often appeal to the inventor more than the target customers. So the first stage of the design thinking process is empathy.

But here’s an example of how empathy is hard to achieve. In the last nine years, we have seen the iPhone 3, 4, 5, 6, SE, 7, 8 and X. Eight models of a continuously developing technology made available via a product predicted to be obsolete within a few years. Considering the broad and changing demographic of iPhone users, can you really empathise with them all? I mean, really?

To design a solution to a problem, we must understand the user need. Researching who, why, what and how is essential to the task of making a positive difference. Research your business area, understand all you can about it. Consider how you got to where you are: figure out what has gone well and not so well.

To make sure we don’t miss anything in the early stages of projects, room44 has developed its own first stages – Insight and Interpretation (see below). The difference in approach gets to the place the Design Thinking method intended, but it also mitigates the risks of trying to empathise with everyone. ‘Rational sympathy’ might be a better name for it.

Our process fits the original Design Thinking ambition but, like all things, we see a need for continuous improvement. Just because things are the way they are, doesn’t mean that’s how they should stay.

Next week we’ll look at the difference between Define and Interpretation through to Ideate.

Sign up here for free Design Thinking updates that will drip new ideas into your inbox each week.

You can also get our free guide to [button link=”” color=”red” newwindow=”yes”] SEE YOUR DATA DIFFERENTLY[/button] where we show you how to re-evaluate and release value from what you already know.

Here’s an audio recording of this post to save you time.