Apr 152014

For decades (generations?) methodologies for creating systems have commenced with some form of requirements gathering. These tactics tend to be a rather clinical and emotionless harvesting of stated needs and wants. These nuggets are typically bundled together into some collection of features and functions. Eventually this evolves into a “system.”

In spite of our best intentions and process reinventions, this approach still seems to fall woefully short far too often. Why, and what can be done about it?

For years we have built products and services that are “working as designed” and that “meet all the requirements.” Yet we’ve struggled to “crack the code” in delighting the recipients. In some cases we have sought refuge in “it’s a training issue” or even venting that “the users never knew what they wanted in the first place.” Yet there is a better alternative — an empathy-based approach.

According to Dictionary.com empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Specifically, the disciplines of User-Centered Design (UCD) and Human-Centered Design (HCD) institutionalize empathy for the human recipient and make design decisions accordingly. Whereas traditional approaches often overlook the factors which will ultimately determine success or failure of an initiative, in contrast, empathy-based approaches illuminate the human factors which will determine whether people actually delight in the product or service.

Traditional Systems Development Life Cycles (SDLCs), whether waterfall, agile, or other, are devoid of empathy. Candidly, many of us like it that way. “Feelings, thoughts, and attitudes” are squishy, squirmy things that make us uncomfortable. They seem like the on-ramp to an HR incident or the theme of a group therapy session. They are, however, the triggers of a failed technology initiative.

In contrast to IT, other disciplines such as industrial design have long recognized the necessity of these squishy human insights. This IS the way that industry leaders design apps, consumer products, innovative concepts, and go-to-market offerings.

What IT needs is a systematic approach for using empathy as the basis for system design. Empathy-based insights will lead us to fundamentally different solutions; the way that processes are automated, information is organized, and software is conceived will be optimized for the people on the receiving end. And that’s just the beginning.

But what exactly does this mean? What does empathy-based design actually entail? First of all, this doesn’t require us to abandon any of our existing methods. The earliest stages of our SDLC’s are, in fact, complemented by empathy-based activities, focused on establishing an understanding of the individuals for whom our solutions are being designed.

These tactics require us to be curious about and attentive to the subjects of our inquiry, and may employ techniques such as:

Contextual Inquiries. Gaining context and deeper details by observing people in their natural environment

  • Cognitive Walk-Throughs. Play-by-play details from customers during touch point interactions with products and services
  • Customer Journey Mapping. Looking at the company experience form the customer’s point of view
  • These activities and resources all flow into the familiar stages of the SDLC in which design and development occur. Done properly, however, the subsequent phases are informed and enlightened by these insights.

An upcoming issue of Cutter IT Journal will explore the application of empathy as the basis of system design.

Suggested topics may include, but are not limited to the following:

  • What opportunities does an empathy-based approach provide?
  • What are the incremental costs and benefits of an empathy-based approach?
  • What are some examples of successes realized by industry leaders who have already leveraged this approach?
  • What are the challenges and impediments to an empathy-based approach?
  • What are the potential applications of an empathy-based approach beyond “core” technology?
  • How is empathy in design different or similar to EQ?
  • What impact does empathy in design have on Change Management as a discipline and as a process step in system implementation?
  • What specific steps within an SDLC might be directly altered using an empathy-based design approach and what would be the overall impact?
  • How does empathy as the basis of design align to brand management?
  • What relevance does empathy have on a customer-centric/customer-connected/customer- collaboration approach to business in the 21st century?


Please send your article proposal to the Guest Editor Art Hopkins, CEO of Macquarium at art[dot]hopkins[at]macquarium[dot]com, with a copy to Christine Generali at cgenerali[at]cutter[dot]com no later than 30 April and include an extended abstract, a short article outline showing major discussion points, and a brief bio of the author.

Accepted articles are due by 30 May 2014.

Editorial Guidelines


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