Design Brief: Why Design Without Empathy is Just a Bad Breakfast Sandwich

Design Brief is a blog series examining One Design’s perspective on industry trends, practices and processes.

Picture this: You forgot crucial materials for the day on the kitchen counter. After you run back home to grab them, you’re met by a delay at the train station. Of course.

Despite being one of those mornings, you know that your favorite Eastman Egg breakfast sandwich—although you ordered it right after you rolled out of bed—will somehow still be piping hot when you pick it up on your way into the office.

It feels almost like magic, right? Not to spoil the surprise, but your reliably-fresh grub was made possible in part by a very intentional user-focused design solution that bridges human behavior patterns with cutting-edge technology. And while we’d like to call ourselves magicians (because, come on—who wouldn’t want to be the David Blaine of the design industry?), design that’s invisible isn’t magic. It starts with lots and lots of user-centered research.

We realize empathy is becoming a buzzword—but it truly lies at the center of our design process. Generally speaking, empathy means being able to understand how someone else is feeling. To put yourself in their shoes. To live experiences vicariously through others.

If we’re talking shop, an empathetic approach to UX and UI work—where understanding the problem and the person at the end of the equation becomes a framework to determine the output and validate the result—is nothing new. Firms like IDEO, Fjord, and Doblin have been designing empathy-driven products for decades. Stanford’s d.school and IIT's Institute of Design have built it into their curricula.

At ODC, we bridge the gap between UX/UI and brand strategy by applying the same empathetic, user-driven design principles to every project we take on.

“We have the capabilities to own an entire project all the way through,” One Design Partner Noah Bernsohn says. “A lot of firms do user-experience design. A lot of firms do branding and user research. There are few firms that do all of those things all the way through the implementation of an app, a website, or the full development of a brand like we can.”

So, let’s unpack that process together.

Getting Inside the User’s Head

“It’s really [about] getting in the mind of a user and thinking about things they need and want—their motivations, their frustrations,” designer Brian Hanson says. “Getting into their head—that is the cornerstone.”

Don’t worry, it’s less surgical than it sounds. When we started working with Smallflower and Merz Apothecary, we walked through the store just as any customer would. Experiencing the retail space and the products first hand, we started to understand what consumers loved about visiting Merz in person—but we needed to translate that same experience to the digital realm.

So we talked to online superfans, local regulars and digital skeptics. We observed the staff interact with the clientele. We interviewed wholesalers and upper management.

To empathize with the user, we try to immerse ourselves in the customer’s world and experience. We have a better chance of seeing how people actually interact with their environments by watching what they do instead of asking them what they do.

It’s like our example earlier. Do you always walk into work exactly at 8:55 a.m. every day? Or do you—more times than you’d like to admit—forget something at home that makes you late? Would you disclose that fact if someone asked if you’re always on time?

What about your biases? Everybody has a favorite color. Everybody has a favorite breakfast sandwich. There’s really no way to argue that—but are your favorites everyone else’s? Observational research helps us when we’re making, testing, and refining our projects because with subjectivity off the table, user-driven data runs the show.

Looking Beyond the Customer

Be it breakfast sandwiches or something less delicious, approaching projects empathetically from start to finish allows both the client and the consumer to become users.

The same principles outlined above were applied to our positioning and messaging strategy work with Pepper Construction. Our research uncovered an interesting insight: empathy was already integral to how some folks at Pepper were conducting business with clients.

When planning to renovate an accounting firm’s global headquarters, the Pepper project team scheduled work on key floors to float around the tax season. This minimized disruption during the company’s most critical time of the year. Even though this plan extended the overall production schedule, the client appreciated the insightful planning so much that it won them the job.

Ultimately, a large focus of our engagement involved helping to operationalize this behavior.

This resulted in a company culture that is built on a client-focused approach to pitching, project planning, and execution—which, along with other insights we gathered during the research phase, informed Pepper’s new tagline, Breaking Ground. The phrase not only alludes to the traditional notion of “breaking ground” on a project, but it also is a nod to how contractors engage with clients, shepherding them through new solutions.

Breaking Ground became a point of pride for their work process and unique point of view in the construction industry (something their competitors couldn’t claim), as well as a catalyst for their strategic growth as an organization.

“As we were working to create a compelling experience across the digital and physical environment for Eastman Egg, we leveraged our research and prototyping methods to gain empathy for the end-user’s experience—the restaurant’s customer base,” One Design Creative Director David Sieren says. “For clients like Pepper or Optimas OE Solutions, we used our approach to understand the actual client team. Understanding and serving an organization’s employee base is critical—your team members are your brand ambassadors, the folks who need to believe in your organization, and who exist along the front lines of brand experience.”

Climbing Higher with Empathy

While the industry is constantly evolving, so are we—and we make a point to evolve empathetically. We do this big thinking up front, and then we continue to leverage that perspective as we move through the process.

“The products and brands we build don’t stay stagnant after launch—they evolve as businesses, teams, and consumers do. Ideally, long-term relationships with our clients means that we can re-evaluate what we’ve built and help improve it,” Bernsohn says.

This approach sets us up to deliver more successful metric-and-results-driven design, and—at the end of the day—value to our clients. When we review our work as part of an ongoing cycle of empathy, evaluation, and iteration, we have the ability to adapt and re-evaluate products and brands. Now how’s that for design thinking?

Read the second installment of our Design Brief posts, where we dig deep into measurement, impact, and iteration (a.k.a. the other essential ingredients in the secret sauce of our process).

One Design Company is a research-driven design and development studio. For over a decade, we’ve explored the intersection of experience and technology—where powerful brands come to life. Want to learn more? Let’s chat.

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