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Starting with “Why?”: Building Empathy to Design the Right Solution

By Laura Griebenow

December 30, 2015

Ask why. And then ask again. And again. And again. And again. Now you’re ready to design something.

In the traditional designer-client relationship, clients come to the table armed with all kinds of requests and designers set about the task of making things look and work better. What doesn’t get a lot of attention, though, is the client request itself. At Azul Seven, we’re trying to evolve this relationship so that when you ask us to design a website, a brochure, or anything else, our first response isn’t, ‘okay’. It’s ‘why?’, and ‘why?’ again, and probably a few more times. We ask ‘why?’ because we can only design true, meaningful solutions if we understand your deepest needs and challenges first.

The 5 Whys is a problem-solving technique employed in many industries, by many Six Sigma types, but has also been invaluable to us as designers. The design thinking process itself starts by defining the design challenge at hand and building empathy for users, but many save that line of thinking for the ‘real’ work, the design project itself. But why not start by building empathy for you, the client, and defining your challenges from the start? In the earliest stages of an engagement when research may not be feasible, asking ‘why?’ is a good place to start. It helps clarify our thoughts and ideas and ensures that we first and foremost propose the best design approach and then ultimately design a solution that’s going to genuinely help you, not just create a temporary fix.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This old (alleged) Henry Ford adage is thrown around a lot when talking about consumers, but the same goes for clients: you don’t always know what you don’t know you need. As human-centered designers, it’s our job to identify deep needs and build empathy for people—that means you the client too, not just customers and end users—from the very first point of contact.

So at the start of every project, when you come forward with an ask, let’s say a sales presentation redesign for example, there are two paths to take. One, we could accept the challenge as it is, and design a new, beautiful presentation. It’s not a bad path, it just doesn’t necessarily help you in the most meaningful way.

The second option is to ask ‘why?’ and dig into the deeper issues that may be plaguing your organization. It might lead us to conversations about product flaws or your sales team’s inconsistent pitch style, or maybe how that old PowerPoint format isn’t really relevant anymore and you need a video instead. It could be anything, but the point is, we’ll have no idea unless we ask. If we don’t take the time to build that empathy and uncover the unmet needs, we could be missing big issues and we’re certainly missing bigger opportunities for success.

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