I can’t say that I recall hearing the word empathy often while studying and practicing architecture in India or the United States. That said, any design project from my experience started with an immersion in understanding a client’s needs. For the design of a home the focus was on who was going to live there, what their life/lifestyle was and what a day or week in their life was like. This perspective of understanding the user and their needs and aspirations deeply was essential to the creation of good design that embodied the home’s inhabitants.
In a context where there are more than a couple users, the same applies – it is important to understand who is going to use the building and spaces and what vision needs to be given form. In the practice of participatory architecture, the goal includes specifically engaging users in a way that they can directly inform the design process and outcomes. Great designers in the architecture field went beyond providing for the needs of immediate users/clients (although it can be said that some blindsided the needs of immediate users in their quest for the ideal) to design for the needs of our times bringing together materials, technology, and concerns of nature and beauty in unique ways that also advanced the field.
In the field of design thinking, the notion of ‘empathy’ is key to the approach and process.. It is an opportunity for design thinkers to immerse themselves in identifying who the users and stakeholders are, what their experiences are – best as well as worst. That phase of empathy is key in informing the rest of the process – problem definition, ideation and prototyping an without the empathy focus the outcome would be disconnected from the human experience.
Design Thinking, as it has emerged in recent years, is about changing and innovating from the status quo and an empathic foundation is key. Deepening of the empathic process is best done through direct interaction with the users being designed for. This 2013 video from the Cleveland Clinic conveys the meaning of empathy, beautifully.