Trevor Brinkman Innovation Consultant

Understanding with empathy

At KD we take a human centred approach to design, ensuring the products and experiences we create are rooted in the needs of users.

Key to this is getting to the heart of people’s wants and needs, going beyond the functional detail of what people say to a deeper understanding of what makes them feel, think and behave in the way they do.

To get to this deeper level of understanding we need to nurture a connection with the people we’re speaking to, creating a bond that is built on trust and mutual respect. How do we do that? We build empathy.

The big question of course is how do you build empathy? While there is no one perfect recipe the five considerations below will go a long way to creating the right environment for a rich and insightful conversation.

01. Parking Preconceptions

As a team we often find ourselves in unfamiliar territory during projects, it might be a completely foreign subject matter or that we are looking at a familiar scenario but from the perspective of a particular stakeholder. Unfamiliarity may at first blush seem a hinderance but it does ensure one of the most important steps to building empathy and that is to be free of any preconceptions. It is only by looking through fresh eyes that we can gather meaningful insights, by limiting our assumptions our eyes are opened to how people are actually behaving.

02. Rapport

We want our interviews to feel like conversations. We are not there to work through a checklist of questions but instead trying to create a guided but flowing dialogue. As it’s a conversation, we need to make sure that we’re listening to peoples answers and reacting accordingly. There is a real art to working through a discussion guide, thinking of the next questions, while still maintaining a natural flow. This is especially true when covering sensitive subject matter.

03. Environment

Wherever and whenever possible get out and spend time with the people you are speaking to in their surroundings. Not only does this give context to the conversation and help with clues and visual observations but it will also help to put your interviewee at ease. This also creates an opportunity to observe people in their natural environment where often they will be doing things unconsciously without realising the importance of their actions. Engrained habits such as how chefs speedily open cartons of tomatoes by slicing them open with a knife, or the route that people follow when shopping in a supermarket can easily be missed in conversations, but could be key insights that shape a design ethos.


To really understand the people we’re talking to we need to go deep. Yes, they prefer the more premium brand of milk but why? There will be several layers to their decisions and the questions we ask need to be carefully chosen to unravel the detail in order to reveal what lies at the heart of the matter. Broad open questions allow us to establish the landscape, whereas more targeted, focused questions home in on specific details. Why did they buy premium milk? Because:
1. They thought it came from the best source and therefore has the best quality nutrition.
2. Which meant their children would have the best start in life.
3. Which made them feel like they were doing everything they could as a parent for their children.
4. Because they wanted to be a good parent.
Layers beneath layers beneath layers.

05. Tools

So we’ve established that rapport, dialogue and open questions are all vital to building empathy but what happens when we don’t speak the same language? As 60% of our work is done outside of the UK this is a situation that presents itself on a surprisingly regular basis. While we often work with interpreters to help us with our conversations, we also develop tools and methodologies that cross language barriers so that we can have natural interactions with the people sitting across from us.
Memorable examples include an immersive board game used in China, Poland and the US to define the common language of comfort and a collaborative construction exercise with children to understand what they want from a piece of packaging.

Empathy is the key to seeing the world through the eyes of others, it is only by delving deep into the thoughts, feelings and actions of our users that we can uncover the insights needed to create truly impactful design that makes a difference to people’s lives. By uncovering and understanding the hidden wants and needs that often never materialise beyond the subconscious, we can glean the clues that allow us to identify what really matters.
Key to building empathy is the development of trust between us as guests, in the lives of our respondents who are the experts. One thing we must never forget is that it’s a privilege to be given a glimpse into someone else’s personal world and that we must enter this new relationship with a mind devoid of preconceptions.

Find out more?

Get in touch with Kelly Dawson our Head of Insight & Innovation