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How to Practice Immersive Empathy in Design Thinking

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Read Time: 6 min

In our previous article we discussed the basics of design thinking. In this article we’ll learn how to handle the first stage in that process: empathy. So let’s first remind ourselves where it sits in the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design’s proposal:

Image source Interaction Design Foundation Website Interaction-designorgImage source Interaction Design Foundation Website Interaction-designorgImage source Interaction Design Foundation Website Interaction-designorg
Image source: Interaction Design Foundation

An Exercise in Empathy

Here’s a scenario: imagine you’ve been tasked with coming up with a solution for people that suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis. You don’t have RA and you definitely don’t know how people it afflicts feel on a daily basis, nor what emotional distress they endure. You’ve conducted empathy interviews with people who have RA, but so far they have only spoken about difficulties in accessing services. You have observed that it has been difficult for them to speak about how RA make them feel.

You decide to use your body as a means of understanding what people suffering from RA go through. You tie your hands and feet in a way that renders them immobile and even painful to use. You walk from your office to the café down the block. You start finding out that it takes you longer that a quick five-minute walk. Furthermore, the pain you feel in your bones as you try to get to the coffee shop makes you stop regularly. 

Photo by Tyler Nix on UnsplashPhoto by Tyler Nix on UnsplashPhoto by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
Ugh, nearly there yet?

When you get to the coffee shop, there’s the matter of using your hands. You notice how painful and almost impossible it is to take out the wallet from your pocket, to open it, to take out the money and pay the cashier. You experience the same pain when you pick up the coffee mug and carry it to the table and even when you pick up the coffee and drink it. And when you’re done drinking your coffee, you have to get on your feet and make your way back to the office one painful step at a time. You stop to gather yourself before you begin the walk back to the office.

On the office whiteboard that you’ll eventually fill with sticky notes, you create an empathy map where you record first hand observations of your simulated experience as a person living with RA.

You record the time it takes to prepare yourself for the day: What is it like to brush your teeth, to shower, to dress, to put on your shoes, to make breakfast/lunch/dinner, to take public transport, or drive. How long do all these activities take? What feelings do they create?

You record the time it takes to get to walk to get to the coffee shop.

You record the time it takes to get tasks done.

You record your frustrations, the physical pains, your mental state, the ups and downs, the state of your psychic health in the process, do you feel discouraged and depressed?

Explaining Immersive Empathy

What I’m describing is immersive empathy and how it works. At some point you will be forced to literally live in the shoes of another in order to have the first hand experience of what it means to be that person on a daily basis.

You are engaging in sensory understanding of a particular person in a particular circumstance that is foreign to you. You are getting first hand experience that you would not come close to understanding by just listening and record their insights, needs and motivations.

This experiential exercise gives you the best place to start framing your initial problem question. It will also allow you to ask questions that connect with the user from a place of emotional understanding.

Think of method actors who completely “become” another person and live that other life from when they have committed themselves to the script until the film or play comes to an end. They have to live in character from moment to moment. The observations they make, the decisions they make, are of the person whose life they’ve immersed themselves in.

Actors, acting up

You too may at some point be given the project that requires your team to create a product for a group of people who have different physical needs compared to the average person. And in order to empathize and ask the right questions you will have to make a decision to experience their lives in the same way method actors experience a person they are portraying.

It’s important to understand that immersive empathy can also be used to find solutions to challenges of your average everyday scenario.

Practicing immersive empathy not only takes you beyond a state of awareness, it allows you to seek solutions that are emotionally satisfactory because you were able to connect with subject from an interior space that they live inside every single day.

What are the Advantages of Immersive Empathy?

It is difficult for people to express their latent needs and desires. They may not have the right language to capture and express them. And when they do have the language, they are not ready to speak about how their situation makes them feel. They don’t want to be misunderstood or feel exposed and vulnerable.

sharing how you feelsharing how you feelsharing how you feel

When members of Design Thinking team have immersed themselves, and experienced on a sensory level what people they want to design for are experiencing, their insights are sharper. They become attuned to how the people feel, they have a glimpse of their emotional state. As a result they are able to articulate what the users feel and ask questions that makes the users feel understood on an emotional level. This makes the users feel free to share from a place of trust.

Our Rheumatoid Arthritis Example

In the scenario I described at the beginning of this tutorial, IDEO had worked with a healthcare company to help them communicate the products and services that they have. What people would talk about was the access to services. People weren’t ready to go to the emotional place. The teams that worked with the company performed an immersive empathy exercise that involved taping their hands and limbs. They realized how painful it was move, how long it took to get to a particular cafe, the restriction one feels.

The immersion exercise made them realize constant pain was depressing. It was something that people they were interviewing experienced. They now had insights as to what was going on beneath the surface. They started asking sufferers about the depression they were dealing with as a result of RA. They understood that it was something that needed to be addressed. The unspoken depression then provides an opportunity to include it in designing of the product, services, and treatment plans.

Some Scenarios to Think About

You have been tasked with coming up with a set of solutions to help: 

  1. People who are hard of hearing 
  2. People with severe vision problems 
  3. People who have experienced accidents which have rendered them immobile 

What immersive empathy exercise could your team undertake that would give you insights on challenges users face on a subconscious level?

Would you consider completely blocking your hearing and live as a person who is hard of hearing for several days? Would you oil your eye-wear for several days and live as a person with several vision problems for a few days?


An immersive empathy experience opens up opportunities to understand what goes on under the surface, on a subconscious level. It allows you to articulate subconscious needs of what the users you are interviewing may be experiencing.

Sources and Useful Links

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