Design Thinking Stage 1: Empathy, it still works in the 21C!

Design Thinking Stage 1: Developing Empathy

Design Thinking Stage 1: Developing Empathy


DT Big Idea Empathy


Stage One is Empathy

This week is week two of the Eduro Design Thinking course.  The big idea is “Empathy”.  I was delighted to see that the starting point of Design Thinking is empathy.  I never would have imagined that it would start with something like this, but I’m very happy it does.

Actually, when I think about it, Empathy should be the starting point of everything we do, if we want it to last for the long-term.



I absolutely LOVED this RSA short by Brené Brown on the definition of “Empathy”.  It is definitely a “must-watch”.  She puts into words what I’ve always felt but didn’t think I could ever articulate.   She explains the difference between sympathy and empathy and reveals to us why empathy is so powerful.


A principle at work

Our assignment this week was to spend a few minutes interviewing a number of students about an issue that they feel strongly about.  The goal was to develop empathy for their problems.

The principle that we’re learning about is that developing empathy for people’s problems helps us to design better and to more authentically solve problems for them.  In traditional “design cycle” models, the first step is to identify the problem.  In this model, developing empathy for the person or persons who have the problem is the starting point.

Going through the process

The assignment to interview kids to talk about a problem was easier said than done.   My kids couldn’t find a common issue between the three of them and neither felt especially upset about the anything in school. 🙂

I tried to probe for something and asked about school policies on Facebook, homework, sharing the soccer pitch etc. etc.   It was my three sons that I was interviewing and they couldn’t settle on a single issue for my assignment.  So, in the end, I did three separate interviews on three different topics.

To start off, I gave them this sentence stem and asked them to fill in the blank:

Tired of _______________? No more.

Rapid Application Development Libs


How does this policy make you feel?

The 16 year old wanted to talk about the “no ripped jeans” policy at school. The 14 year old wanted to talk about the fact that his entire class is being punished because of a number of chatterers that won’t keep quiet during class.  The teacher is frustrated and since the majority of the class is chatting, “punishes” the entire class.  The problem is that this is an on-going thing and he isn’t one of the chatterers.  The 11 year old is constantly worried about the missed homework policy.  He gets a “homework” report if he misses homework.  The school is very strict on this and you get one, even if it is your first infraction.  This is his first year of Secondary School and he’s really scared about getting his first homework report.

So, during the interview I made notes on:

  1. Say
  2. Do
  3. Think
  4. Feel

I tried to capture any tensions or contradictions that came up.


Empathy Map 2 ChezVivian

Empathy Mapping

To get everything notated down,  I used the empathy mapping model (pictured above and below).  I made the notes on different coloured post-its for each son.

  1. Say (top left)
  2. Do  (bottom left)
  3. Think (top right)
  4. Feel (bottom right)

Empathy Map ChezVivian


Say, Do, Think, Feel

Say, Do, Think, Feel

DT Saying ChezVivian










Discovering ‘ideas”  is the most important step. This is when the interviewer must employ all her senses to identify some needs and insights about the person and the problem.

“Needs” are human emotional or physical necessities.  Needs help define your design challenge.  Needs are verbs (activities and desires with which your user could use help), not nouns (solutions).

An “Insight” is a remarkable realization that you could leverage to better respond to a design challenge.  Insights often grow from contradictions between two user attributes.





The Designer must become a risk-taker

After “Ideas” are captured, then the Designer must come up with a risk-taking statement that is a solution for the person with the problem.

  • Ripped Jean Policy

L. needs a way to hear why the school has a ripped jean policy because it doesn’t make sense to him and his friends are getting in trouble and it bothers him.

Ideate for L ChezVivian


  • Punished when not guilty

D. needs a way to communicate that he’s being treated unfairly because it’s starting to affect the quality of hs classes, and especially during group work.
Ideate for D ChezVivian


  • Scared about getting a homework report

M. needs to hear and be assured that he is liked by his teachers and thought a good student.  It’s his first year in Secondary School and he doesn’t want to mess up. He needs this because he has huge anxieties about getting a homework report. This affects his happiness and stress levels at home.

Ideate for M ChezVivian


Empathy for the win!

It was an interesting experience playing “psychologist”.  Since these problems weren’t things that any of the boys felt very strongly about, it was a bit difficult to have a deep conversation about them.  Still, we went through the process.

I understand that authenticity is the goal of the Empathy stage of Design Thinking. Normally, that would happen organically as problems naturally crop up and need to be addressed.  Because this exercise was contrived to start with (We had to search for a problem so I could finish this assignment),  it really didn’t feel authentic for any of us. But I get the point and the point is that the Designer acquiring Empathy is the important first stage in the Design Thinking process.

In our quest to find the latest and greatest technology solution to our problems, it’s easy to forget that what has worked for many millenia (Empathy!) still works for today.

To that, I say, “Yeah!” 🙂  Empathy is what separates us from machines and I’m glad humans aren’t being replaced by Technology quite yet! 🙂

Onward to week three of the course now…

What is the most pressing school-related problem you are experiencing right now?


Design Thinking Vocabulary

Design Thinking Vocabulary

About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
This entry was posted in Design Thinking, Eduro Learning, Thought-Provoking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Design Thinking Stage 1: Empathy, it still works in the 21C!

  1. Kate Hall says:

    Wow this is amazing! I absolutely adore Brene Brown and I have been thinking about how to bring her ideas into my classroom. I am going to reread your blog to use some of your ideas, but I want to thank you for all your great ideas with pictures!

  2. Vivian says:

    Hi Kate

    I REALLY liked the way she explained the difference between empathy and sympathy. She also has a great TEDtalk on vulnerability. Have you seen it?