Why and How Empathy Can Be a Useful Tool in Product Development

Posted on December 3, 2019 by Matthew Russell

Software engineering isn’t known as being the ideal environment for deep emotional exploration, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be.

Empathy has long been a tool of the soft sciences, a method by which humans can form a connection based on mutual feelings, but it also involves an uncanny measure of self-awareness. Practicing empathy can be as simple as a conversation, or as complex as role playing out a case study.


Empathy means experiencing the world from another’s point of view, and reaching that point all comes down to listening, asking questions, and sharing honest and open emotion on a level and unbiased playing field.


At DornerWorks, empathy is played out in collaborative development, weekly progress reports that keep clients updated on the work and spend in their projects, and sustained support after product launch.

A deep understanding of others needs and wants may not seem like an essential tool for building the world’s most innovative embedded solutions, but it’s not only helped DornerWorks deliver on hundreds of projects already, it’s giving the company an edge in working with the latest ideas in IoT, secure technologies, and FPGA design, among other fields.

Why is empathy important?

Empathy helps establish an unbiased and open foundation for the design process, and helps map out a path toward delightful experiences. Solving problems by quantitative data alone is one way to build products that merely satisfy a need. But truly stand-out products; those that evoke extreme emotion in users, are created through using empathy, and delving into a user’s emotional landscape.


Using empathy, embedded engineers and program managers are able to better understand the needs of clients, as well as:

  • Explain technical work in a common language
  • Better understand the how products are truly used
  • Approach criticism as an opportunity


Empathetic practices like journey mapping, conversational navigation, and emotional exploration allow us to uncover insights into what others are thinking. These three areas sound like they involve extensive travel, and in a sense that’s true. Empathy work involves pressing into the unknown, and seeking to define viewpoints that will undoubtedly be dissimilar from our own experience.

Conversational Navigation

Conversational Navigation

While it’s important to remain neutral and unbiased for effective empathy to work, even in a one-on-one conversation, making use of it requires plotting out the emotional and topical paths that inevitably take place.

Conversational navigation provides a road map to building trust. It starts any relationship off with open and honest dialogue.

Journey mapping places the evidence of emotional highs and lows on a timeline, allowing product developers to understand where there may be bottlenecks in a system, and improvements can be made. It also reveals the hints of delight in the product experience, and where similar insight could be applied.

Journey Mapping

Journey Mapping

Building with empathy

Empathy based prototyping is based on three steps:

  • observe
  • hypothesize
  • build

First, developers observe users for understanding, watching people use a product or its complementary products (like toothpaste to a toothbrush) in daily life without coaching. Once patterns are recognized, a developer investigates how the product made the user feel, or any other related experiential data.


Documentation is essential at every level of the engineering process, and empathetic practice is no different. In hypothesizing, observations and potential inferences are noted. Does this observed behavior mean this? There’s only one way to find out.

Building. And testing. Low-resolution prototypes are the basis for lean business models, as well as empathy-based development. Whether products or systems, secure technologies, or FPGA driven innovations, developers can create lasting solutions when hypothesis are iterated and tested thoroughly.  The earlier products can be built and tested, the sooner issues and problems can be detected resulting in less waste.

In Practice

Taking part in a 3-day community challenge in June, I was able to practice and see the benefits of empathy in design. A design thinking workshop recently facilitated by the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology tackled the issue of improving the Neighborhood Matching Fund, a project that matches financial, in-kind, and volunteer hour resources for projects that show a marked benefit to one of the 32 neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, with up to $2,500 per project.

Throughout the challenge, a group of “Community Catalysts” interviewed Assistant to the City Manager Stacy Stout as well as a number of others who had previously gone through the NMF application, the first two days were spent on empathy and discovering pain points applicants experienced within the system.

The spring cohort saw 16 Grand Rapids residents apply for NMF funding. Three of those applications did not meet the application criteria, but we interviewed several of those who did. One of the greatest frustrations we found through our interviews was that both the website and application process were not user friendly.


Most of the applicants hated it and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Using the various tools explained in this article, the Community Catalysts delivered their plan for a revised, more user-friendly NMF experience, along with several pages of notes for Stout to consider. We refocused the NMF on the idea of good neighbors being the “heroes” of this particular story adjusting the process to fit the wants, needs, and fears discovered in our interviews.


The updated NMF website filters out inessential forms that wouldn’t be required until a project is confirmed, and is much easier to find on the city’s homepage. Instead of scrolling through feet of worksheets that previously confused and frustrated applicants, the initial NMF landing page now asks visitors just four short questions.

What we discovered during the empathy stage helped us understand what elements of the final product needed to be rearranged, reformatted, or removed completely, and more importantly, what the greatest strengths of the program were.

Feedback Loop

Honest feedback is important in lean business models, and especially important in practices of empathy. It’s the only way to filter out the biases or noise that stand in the way of a truly delightful product. And empathy helps identify those obstacles by providing context and contrast from our own frame of reference.

Empathy in design is not just about communicating, it’s about communicating better. Using self-awareness exercises after a project is delivered, like filling out Post-Its for “I like, I wish, I wonder, I will” prompts, can be helpful in judging the cohesiveness of the strategies in play, and framing steps for the next project.


In many instances of group work, especially when emotions are involved, the process can get uncomfortable. Design thinking is no different. It forces us out of our own environment, and into the shoes of others. That can be a scary place to visit, but it’s also true that such travel broadens the mind.

Of the many tools that modern embedded solutions engineers have at their disposal, empathy is one of the most versatile in directing product design toward lasting success.

Matthew Russell
by Matthew Russell