August 7, 2019

Author(s): Richard Conn

Trying to solve a problem or find a solution for an individual or company is virtually impossible without having a deep understanding of the issues that affect them.

In design thinking, that process begins not with compiling data or performing a comprehensive analysis, but by simply listening. Having empathy is the first phase and most crucial element of the design thinking process. While conducting interviews during the empathy phase is critical, performing research is also important to understand how other individuals or companies have addressed similar issues or problems. 

Exhibiting empathy in design thinking means putting aside any preconceived notions you might have about the client’s needs when first meeting with them so that you’re truly focused on what they’re telling you, said Christian Garman, the director of innovative program development at the Innovation Institute, who helps lead the Institute’s design thinking workshops.

 “It’s walking a mile in their shoes and finding out what’s really going on, because there’s no way we can ever get to the bottom of anything until we figure out who we’re dealing with and what they actually need,” Garman said. 

Listening, observing and caring about the client’s needs expedites defining the problem the user is having so a solution can be prototyped and then tested, said Chris Middleton, director of strategic innovation at the University of West Florida Innovation Institute. 

 “Empathy is an accelerator,” Middleton said. “It can get you to the point that you need to work on faster because you’re asking the user directly face to face.”

Garman and Middleton have both received design thinking training from the Stanford and have led numerous internal and external design projects.

Middleton said the empathy stage of design thinking should begin with a positive discussion and not immediately be geared toward a negative point of view. He uses the example of talking to a restaurant patron and not asking them “What do you hate about the restaurant?” but instead “How was your dinner?”

It’s also important to build trust during the empathy phase, Garman said, especially when dealing with a client who may have long-held frustrations that the problems they are having can’t be solved. 

“You do have to build some trust and let them know why you’re doing this and that it really does matter and what they’re telling you may be the most important thing you hear through the whole process,” Garman said.   

The empathy phase of design thinking is rigorous, but never rigid, Middleton said. It’s important not to simply take a single point of view and “run down a rabbit hole,” he said. 

“It is energizing, because it takes you to places unexpected,” Middleton said of the empathy phase. “It’s genuine wherever you end up, because it’s personal, human to human.”

The Innovation Institute will hold its Design Thinking Workshop on Friday, Nov. 1, at the institute’s headquarters at 321 N. Devilliers St. in Pensacola. Garman and Middleton will teach the basic principles of design thinking, from building empathy and generating ideas to prototyping and testing.

The cost to attend the workshop is $149. Light breakfast, water, coffee, snacks and lunch will be provided with the registration cost. To register, click the link below.

Those with dietary restrictions, food allergies or any other questions or considerations, should email Christian Garman at

Register Here