Using Empathy and Design Thinking to Build a Better Startup

In 1895 Mary T. Lathrap wrote a poem titled “Judge Softly” which is known by its most famous line “Walk a mile in his moccasins”. You probably have heard some form of this line from your mother at some point when she was trying to teach you empathy. It seems logical that offering good advice or solving a problem has a much better outcome if you have walked a mile in the receiver’s shoes and empathized with his or her situation.

Empathy Can Help to Create a Better Way


Using that same logic, the experience you want customers to have with your brand will have more impact if you have empathized with the beneficiaries of that solution. Working in IT for multiple decades has taught me that many brilliant technical minds may struggle with having empathy for the user, as I’ve found that it is not natural for everyone and may need to be developed. I have taken up the challenge, over that last few years, to marry brilliant minds with empathy in order to help create solutions that solve a deeper problem in a better way than previously designed or implemented.

Using processes such as Design Thinking combines empathy with ideas to help build consensus on priority of problems and solutions, to help you decide in an ocean of possibility what to do first, and to help focus your efforts for the biggest impact.

In every single Design Thinking session I have attended or moderated there has been an “ah ha” moment, a new path forward, a consensus built, or a big idea that previously didn’t exist created. I want to give you some fuel to understand why you need to use these type of practices. I have found that each client workshop requires a slightly different outcome with a slightly different perspective and starting point. There is no one way to achieve nirvana in the IT solution space, but I know that when we approach a plan by using empathy for stakeholders, and consensus on priority and impact, we build a better solution with far more efficiency.

The base for an effective team is to have a clearly defined common goal. This advice has been given many times in many publications; it is not a new concept. It is sort of obvious, and the hard part of that advice is creating the common goal. Design Thinking type of practices use empathy and consensus to help you decide together what the goal needs to be, and they go so far as to give you a template for the goal statement(s).

Applying Empathy inside Design Thinking


A commonly used template follows a similar format: “find a better way for an individual persona to take an action or series of actions so that he/she can achieve something ”. You need to understand whose life you are trying to change and what problem you will solve. Using empathy for the various personas is key to determining their issues and problems. Write down what they are doing today and how that makes them feel, the actions they need to take, the problems they have. Together decide what is the most important problems to solve that will have the most impact on their feelings and actions. Design Thinking practices have exercises that will help you build a consensus on what problems have the highest priority for the solution. These types of exercises will focus and scope your work on what matters the most. Countless hours of debate and laborious discussion can be saved, and a common defined goal is the outcome.

Keeping Dreamers Dreaming While Still Getting to a Plan


Design Thinking types of practices allow dreams or visions to be explored and valued while making progress toward implementation. We all know the feeling of sharing visions with colleagues and the constant “it would be totally cool if …” can be exhilarating. Everyone loves being innovative. Design Thinking type of practices can help with focusing the innovation by creating “to be” visions for each persona where the vision is tied to solving a specific persona’s biggest issue(s).

Staying focused on one problem at a time, enables the “it would be cool if…” ideas to flow toward solving a specific issue. The Design Thinking type of practices stress exercises where people think quietly then they communicate, express and share ideas so that everyone gets heard. All the participants will then be focusing their creativity on solving one very specific problem. You can leverage weighted voting or plotting big ideas on a graph of doable versus value to pick the best idea. Ideas not chosen are not thrown away, rather placed in a parking lot to think about or implement later. Enabling big ideas to be created and discussed is essential to unleashing potential game-changing solutions.

Lessons Learned from Running Workshops and Design Sprints with Founders 


Cognition Foundry has held many workshops with many innovative start-ups. The one thing we can be certain of is that no two are alike and no two of them had the same starting point. We have had clients who had not even thought about technology as a solution, clients who have developed a prototype that did not scale or solve the right problem, clients who think they know the exact solution they want, clients who want to solve every problem right away, and clients with variations of some or all of the above.

These clients do not have a week to spend in a workshop. They are generally big thinkers, energetic, and a bit impatient to get started. Before the workshop we spend time understanding their history and dreams so we can create the ideal Design Thinking agenda and exercises that will help them reach the next goal. It is important to create a workshop agenda that can be fluid. We know our workshops will help our clients to prioritize and focus on the solution that has the most impact.

We leverage the Design Thinking exercises needed to help our clients empathize to understand, build consensus for a prioritized goal, focus on issues that if solved would have the biggest impact, envision a user journey with creative solutions to the biggest issues, and build consensus on a solution to build.