How to Build Team and Audience Empathy 


Building empathy and empathetic teams isn’t the most comfortable thing to do, but the more you make the effort the easier it will be. By making it a part of the process every time, it becomes second nature to consider empathy first, and the solution second. 

You can build empathy several ways, even if you aren’t able to immerse yourself in the situations and audiences you are designing for or do not have the time or budget to do extensive customer research. Focusing on the customer and not your own needs is half the battle.  

There are many different tools and techniques to build empathy. I’ll outline some of my favorites here, but they are by no means inclusive of all empathy building techniques. Just remember, you are looking to capture the why, the what, and the how to find motivations and emotions, not solutions to the problem. 

“The aim of empathic design studies is not to seek solutions for recognized problems, but rather to look for design opportunities as well as develop a holistic understanding of the users. Design empathy is not only information and facts but also inspiration and food for ideas.” 
– Tuuli Mattelmäki

Tap into Your Customers 

If you have access to customers, take advantage of it. Nothing beats real-time research to develop deep empathy for building solutions that have true impact. Even a little time spent with customers is worth the effort. Talking to or observing customers will help put things in perspective. While you shouldn’t make broad assumptions based on the input of one or two customers, you can identify statistically significant information through a relatively small number of interactions.   

Contextual Inquiries/Observation 

Contextual inquiries involve immersing yourself in the customer’s life and situation. Visiting a customer’s workplace and observing them gives you the opportunity to see things they may miss or take for granted. Using the “What How Why” method during these sessions helps capture activities and observations for later (identifying what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.) Documentation via photos and video adds detail and helps recall, so get appropriate permission.  Pro Tip: Be a fly on the wall and capture information from multiple sources, if possible. Watch and ask questions, but don’t interfere with their work.  

Research Diaries 

Research diaries are a self-led method where your target customer records detailed information about a specific topic, task, or problem. This also involves notes, videos, and photos, but the process of documentation is put in the customer’s hands. 


PRO TIP: Always ask open-ended questions in user interviews. Following up with the “5 Whys” technique helps dig deeper to understand motivations and reasoning. Avoid closed-ended or leading questions that may introduce personal biases or assumptions. Making the interview as conversational as possible means better outcomes. 


Surveys are good at gathering large amounts of data, but they tend to miss nuanced context. Using surveys are not the best activity to build empathy but they do provide a larger data set to analyze and can uncover insights to inform further inquiry. 


Building customer journeys is a great way to develop a deeper understanding of what happens and what’s involved. You can use journey activities to understand the steps of a process, who is involved, and all the services or tools that impact the work. Your teams can build empathy usually based on the understanding of just how involved an activity can be.  

Building Empathy without Access 

If you don’t have access to customers, there are some activities to help “put your team in the customer’s shoes.” The most difficult thing is making sure to check your (and your team’s) assumptions at the door. 

Empathy Mapping 

Empathy mapping is an activity where you ask 4 main questions about your specific customer: What are they feeling? What are they doing? What are they hearing? What are they seeing? You can also discuss pain points and needs as well. These questions help the team speculate about more than just a solution, but how the environment around the customer might impact those pain points and needs. Working on this as a team exercise builds on each other’s ideas, much like brainstorming.  

If I Were 

This is an activity where participants use their imagination and perception concerning the key elements that influence a situation or problem. In this activity, we take a problem and a set of roles, and then have people walk through the experience answering a set of questions that investigate who the “role” interacts with, what questions they have, what they look for, and how do they make decisions. Then they imagine what a happy path might look like and what roadblocks are in the way. When we discuss together, we use the stories of their experiences to drive ideas and a deeper understanding of that role’s problems and needs. It’s the ultimate “walk in their shoes activity” using real-world scenarios or experiences.  

5 Whys 

The 5 Whys activity is simple. When you make a statement, continue to ask why. You can make problem statements, declarative statements, situational statements, whatever works. The 5 whys help teams dig deeper into the underlying motivations and why they lead to the initial statement. 


This activity involves taking a problem from a different industry or situation and compares it to your current situation. Trying to solve a problem with parts replacement or order updates? Analyze the process of grocery delivery to see how they compare. It’s a great way to think around a problem and see how others outside of a typical competitor might solve a similar problem.  

Ultimately, the best way to develop empathy for the people you are designing for is to check your ego at the door. No matter the activity, no matter the who or the focus, leaving our assumptions behind is key. Instead, we should focus our attention on actively. Observe. Think like a newbie. Soak it up like a sponge and then build on what we hear, see, discover. Socialize your learnings. 

I’ve had the best results if I can use a few of these activities together before jumping right into solutioning, but even one of these exercises will help develop a different perspective. It’s worth it.