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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

The Design Mind #4: Empathy Desired, but not Required

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Long, long ago in a company far, far away…

…the senior leadership of at XYZ Corporation discovered a new big idea.

Design Thinking! It’s all the rage! It’s exactly what we need to turn our customers into raving fans, to transform our organization into the Apple of our industry. Market domination, here we come!

And so, armed with a set of PowerPoint slides and a few TED Talk video clips, the executives embarked on a mission to transmogrify themselves and every employee in the company into designers.

A mandate was issued that every project would launch with a design thinking workshop. Stakeholders, product owners, project managers, business analysts, subject matter experts, application architects, and lead developers would convene in a conference room. Three slides were shown imploring the team to pursue innovative ideas and abandon linear thinking. An inspirational five-minute video was played. Post-it notes, scissors, and various prototyping materials were passed out. Instructions were given for the first exercise and sample artifacts were presented as templates. The group was divided into teams. Let the design thinking begin!

Six hours later, the “designers” emerged with all the personas, journey maps, and concept sketches required to create a stunning new product. All that was needed now was a graphic artist to make it look cool.

Call the SCRUM master and start the sprints!

Wake up! It was just a bad dream

Now to be clear, this scenario is completely fictional and could never happen in the modern customer-centered corporations that we are so fortunate to work in today....(?!)

Furthermore, do not misconstrue this scenario as an indictment of design thinking as introduced by Tim Brown and taught by Stanford’s d-school and other fine institutions. I am grateful for any and all efforts to supplant short-term, linear, spreadsheet-driven, we’re-no-worse-than-our-competitors-so-who-cares-about-the-user-experience thinking of last-century companies. There is, in fact, no correlation between XYZ Corporation’s so-called “design thinking” and the approach that Tim Brown, Stanford, and others have promoted.

My point is that some companies try to institutionalize design thinking with only a superficial understanding of what design is. At the fictional XYZ Corporation, design is wholly expressed through a product’s “cool” appearance. They have no interest in investing in the work required to develop a deep understanding of user pain points and big unmet needs, much less the constraints of time, resources, and technology. They believe all the wisdom required to create a good design can be assembled in a conference room full of company employees. This brand of design thinking requires very little actual thinking, and even less actual designing.

XYZ Corporation and companies like them have missed the point:

Design thinking cannot be institutionalized through a change in process.

Design thinking can only be institutionalized through a change in culture.

And only by people who have the passion and tenacity to solve hard design problems.

Empathy recommended, but not required

I started this series of Design Mind posts with the goal of discovering how the design mind works, to reveal a series of questions which, when asked in the right order and answered in a knowledgeable way, will lead to elegant, effortless designs. Let’s assume we’ve figured out all the questions. Does this mean that anyone can ask the questions and develop a design mind?


Not everyone has the temperament to develop a design mind. While it’s true that anyone can ask the design questions, very few people will make the effort required to find the answers. The design mind requires an underlying mindset that fuels the relentless and often unrewarded quest for answers to the design questions, a mindset that is not common in the general population.

The design mind is driven by either an empathic mindset or a systems mindset – preferably both – but only one is required. Driven is the operative word. If you are driven, you are not driving – you do not have control of the wheel. You have no choice but to follow this road. You can’t help yourself. Solving design problems is your passion; it is your life’s work.

People who are not driven to solve design problems can never become design thinkers; they will just put in their mandatory six hours in the design thinking workshop and then go back to their day jobs. This does not mean they cannot offer valuable insights, ideas, and information to help guide the design, but they lack the passion, discipline, and doggedness required to sustain them through the chaotic, experimental, iterative nature of creating an excellent design.

Empathic Design Minds

Investing your energy and expertise into making people’s lives easier and more pleasurable is a noble endeavor. That, after all, is what technology promises to do: empower people to do things they could not otherwise do; to make people’s lives simpler, not more complicated.

Empathic designers are compelled to pursue the perfect design because they care about people. When watching people struggle through a frustrating experience, empathic designers feel their pain and are driven to alleviate it. They are committed to user success for emotional reasons.

Systems Design Minds

Ironically, empathy for users is not required to produce a human-centered design. Instead, design minds can be driven, not by user success, but by the passion to design a successful system. But here’s the critical and often missing requirement that separates systems design minds from typical systems thinkers: you must include the human component in the design of the system. You must grok that the technology components can do nothing – they just sit there – unless the human component can successfully execute the functions you’ve assigned to it. You recognize that the human component is the most vulnerable to failure and thus most likely to bring the whole system down.

Systems design minds look at the human component in the same way as they do the technical components: a piece of hardware with input/output capabilities, running a sometimes buggy operating system, encumbered by bandwidth and memory constraints, and prone to a host of seemingly random errors. But regardless of the design challenges that this component introduces into the system, human constraints are real and unavoidable and must be accommodated to reduce the probability of system failure. The only way to do this is to design the technology components to conform to the limitations and peculiarities of the human component. Do this well, and systems design minds can create an excellent design.

The Definition of Success

The litmus test for the design mind comes down to core beliefs about what it means to design a successful product or service. To the design mind, success is not defined in terms of market share, revenue, or profit margin. These are all just desirable side effects that arise when you achieve the true definition of success.

For the design mind, true success is achieved only when the user, or the system, succeeds in achieving desired results. From the empathetic perspective, success means users have a good experience getting the results they want. From the systems perspective, success means the system (which includes the human component) rarely fails to do what it’s designed to do.

Without a passionate commitment to do the hard work required to ensure user or system success, design thinking is meaningless.

Non-design minds will seek easy and quick answers to the design questions. Design minds understand that some questions may require deep research and analysis before they can be answered.

Non-design minds will want to get design “out of the way” so they can start writing code and stay on schedule. Design minds understand that shipping a product whose complexity delivers a poor experience or that requires the human component to perform functions it cannot or will not perform is destined for failure.

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