Good design is empathy


As a budding product designer, I’ve slowly been putting together my philosophy for what great design means. Yes, we all have Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design, but I’ve always been a fan of coming to my own truths.

If a previous post, I boiled good design down to three things. In short, they are:

  1. Good design is useful.
  2. Good design minimizes cognitive load. (I expanded on this one here).
  3. Good design is beautiful.

Upon reflection, I still strongly agree with all of these, and I haven’t come up with another rule for myself yet.

However, I have started to believe that all of good design comes down to one overarching skill: having empathy.

You can’t create a useful design without empathy. The designer must have a deep understanding of the user. What is the user’s exact need? Where would they use it? When would they use it? And, how would then use it? What would their environment look like, and how does it affect the design?

You can’t minimize cognitive load without empathy. At each point of user interaction, the designer must understand exactly what the user is going through. What is the user thinking? What do they know? What don’t they know? What are they trying to do? What are they looking for? Where is there attention, and where should there attention be?

Making a product beautiful matters because it delights the user. I remember when I bought my first Mac laptop. I could have bought the white plastic iBook, but I splurged and bought the aluminum Powerbook simply because it was a beauty. It looked great. It felt great. I wanted to own it, and I loved using the product every day. Beauty surely isn’t the most important part of good design (which is why it is third), but if you care about delighting the user, it matters.

To some degree, it makes perfect sense. I just found it a surprising thought, since it sounds so simple. If a product is built for people, then the best designers should have the best understanding of people.

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