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Design, Focus, and Empathy

Mark Mzyk | August 18, 2010

Last month’s Refresh the Triangle featured Abe Crystal, whom I’ve worked with, who spoke on focus and empathy in design, i.e., how does a design make a user feel?

This post is based on Abe’s presentation, but has been embellished. All the good points are his, all the low points and errors mine.

Feelings are a nebulous thing, yet there is no question design evokes them. We can no more suppress feelings than we can avoid design. Given the ubiquity of feeling, how does one go about creating a design that takes them into account?


Start with focus. What is an activity based around? Figure that out, then design the product tightly around that activity.

Some examples:

The Flip. People make videos to share, so make sharing as easy as possible.
Basecamp. Project management is collaboration, so make collaboration as easy as possible.

Focus caused these products to shed features that took away from their main purpose. As a consequence, they became simple to use and their adoption has been high.


Empathy is feeling your user’s pain. How does a company become empathetic?

It starts with a mantra. A mantra is not a mission statement, it is an essence. It is three or four words that capture the company.

Some hypothetical examples from Guy Kawasaki, who developed the idea:

Healthy Fast Food  –  Wendy’s
Democratize Design  –  Target
Peace of Mind  –  Federal Express
Authentic Athletic Performance  –  Nike

Beyond the mantra are principles. Principles are one or two sentence ideas that guide the company more explicitly than a mantra.

Google’s potential principles:

  • Every millisecond counts
  • Add a human touch

Existing next to the mantra and principles: make the future tangible. It’s human nature to respond to what we can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste – even if it’s only in our mind. Goals that are concrete are easier to obtain.

An intangible future: We’ll be the best fast food company with the happiest customers.

A tangible one: We’ll create the juiciest burgers so our customers have to use a napkin.

More tangible futures: We’ll create a phone that excels through design.  We’ll create a set of cards that provide a reminder of human behavior.

Mantra and principles keep the goals of the company front and center, providing focus. If something doesn’t help fulfill the mantra or principles, it gets dropped. Having a tight focus keeps the user’s needs and feelings in front of you.

Being tangible lets you put your product in front of customers every step of the way. They can play with, even if it’s a sketch with a sharpie, or a box, or only a block a wood. They can provide feedback; you can adjust. Either with changes to the product, or by changing customers.

You have options, because you made it real, with empathy and focus.