Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Most Underrated Skill for Creatives? Empathy.

When given a task, it may be your instinct to hop in feet first. When starting a company, you may just want to put your head down and get to work. But before step one, there’s a step zero — the best of us listen first before creating anything.

Those who stop and listen connect with their customers and fans on an emotional level, putting themselves in the service of others. They gather data before getting started (and keep gathering long after they start), ensuring that there is no wasted effort. The big benefit? These people now have the fuel to push pass the relentless friction that arises from bringing something original into the world. It is much easier to push through your creative blocks when you can actually visualize what your audience needs. But more importantly, you’ll make stuff that people actually want.

Empathy in Practice

If you spend time observing and talking with people who use your product or service, fantastic creative ideas start to appear. Also, features you once thought were critical become irrelevant as your audience tells you what their true emotions are behind the decisions they make. None of this happens in front of a whiteboard in the comfort of your office.


At Tadpull, a user-first digital marketing shop, before we write a line of code or sketch a wireframe we have conversations with the people who will be clicking or tapping on the things we’re looking to build for our clients. We focus on asking tons of simple open-ended questions and listen for people to reveal their hopes, anticipations, fears, and annoyances around the ideas we are working on.

None of this happens in front of a whiteboard in the comfort of your office.
Empathy Map courtesy of Tadpull

Empathy Map courtesy of Tadpull

To organize what we heard from these interviews, we rely on a tool called an Empathy Map (You can download our Empathy Map here) to help us identify common patterns from these conversations. We write down the answers on post it notes and organize it on the map. This helps us get a birds-eye view of what users and customers want. 

The fun part is the right column, which holds all types of ideas that we never would have dreamed up had we not spoken with real people. This is where the creative breakthroughs start to sprout up and we simply focus on generating a large quantity of ideas at this stage of the process.

Next, to tie all these conversations into something everyone can execute against we work with our team and client to draft a fill-in-the-blank Mad Libs-type statement. It usually goes something like this: “(User) needs a way to (solve a problem) because (they have this pain or desire).”

The “because” part turns out to be a really big deal. We find our entire team aligning around this insight. We’ve now connected with these people as friends and as human beings, and are committed to creating something together to make their lives better.


We are not the first company to employ this method. The legendary design consultancy company IDEO makes it a habit for its digital team to schedule out-of-office field trips where developers, designers, researchers, and project managers all spend time on site interviewing potential users. The team interviews everyone they can find about what a person might go through during an end-to-end experience accomplishing a task. Next, they spend time debriefing as a team to share what they learn before they ever start to build something like an app experience.

As Duane Bray, a partner at the firm says, “We do a lot of live work looking for inspiration and to do this, we’ll want to be in (the users’) context. We’re looking for finding the emotions around why people engage or why they don’t. If we understand those it becomes a lot more powerful in how we tune the tools.”


Another great example of empathy at scale comes from the email marketing company, MailChimp, who considers empathy core to their brand and product.

According to Aarron Walter, head of User Experience, the reason is simple, “When everyone can create very quickly, what is it that will distinguish your product or brand from the rest? Caring for your customers. In order to do that it requires you to think from their perspective.”

When everyone can create very quickly, what is it that will distinguish your product or brand from the rest? Caring for your customers.

Walter says that front-end designers make it part of their process to watch customers perform essential tasks on their platform. But, remember, you’ll need thick skin. “I think that requires a bit of humility,” he says, “because it’s not always a good message you get from customers.”

Making Creative Work Fun

As creatives, adopting this empathy-first approach has some unexpected personal benefits as well. Having an empathy-first mindset helps you push through the inevitable creative roadblocks. It’s not about creating a portfolio piece. It’s about helping the people you now know solve their problems using your unique skills. Working this way, with real people in mind, is much better than staring at a blank canvas or whiteboard and giving it your best guess. 

However, be forewarned: working in this user-first way is quite humbling, as many of your assumptions brainstormed in euphoria around the conference table tend to not hold up to this type of inquiry. After all, a critical voice was missing.

Be forewarned: working in this user-first way is quite humbling.

Using this mindset, you can avoid the heartache of wasted time by capturing what people want early on before you are overly vested. After all, we’re not creating for screens or faceless crowds.

As Maya Angelou once said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”


How about you?

How does empathy factor in to your creative process?

More insights on: Innovation

Jake Cook

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Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.
load comments (18)
  • Adam Bard

    Take it from a lyricist, the only relevant touchstone for making a lasting connection is: how does what you do make people feel?

  • Mani

    As a creativity consultant, empathy plays a HUGE role in my business. In order to help people move through creative blocks, organize their lives, and develop new ideas that work for their endeavors, I have to be able to think and feel as if I were them. If I don’t understand the demands of their lives, their vision, and all of their hopes and fears, I am useless to them.

  • Guest

    Love this article!!!~!~!~

  • Thomas Hutchings

    Empathy is always at the forefront in our approach to everything. Everyones a designer or creator now, its great to see this talent is being recognized in a world that is starting to be dominated by rational code like thinking. Problem solving is at its best when Empathy is first.

  • Andy C

    Well written article. Can I play devils advocate for a moment and say whilst a great ideal for giving consumers exactly what they want, this approach will never give them something wholly new. There’s the potential to kill real innovation by having too much empathy.

    Imagine going back in time, pre iPhone and asking what consumers wanted from a phone. You’d get things like, “better signal”, “better battery life”, “less dropped calls” etc. I doubt the research would have ever led you to conclude they wanted a huge touch screen with Apps they could install, all the while doubling as a music player, bookstore, video store and more.

    Sometimes you need to throw empathy out of the window and say, “no, the world wants this, whether they know it or not”. E.g kickstarter, facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the playstation, MacDonalds and the automobile (no-one wanted cars, just faster horses).

    • Geoff

      I’m with you 100% Andy. The client – or the public – usually doesn’t know what’s best; they just think they do: variations of what’s been successful in the past. Fortunately Picasso, and his like, didn’t listen to what the public wanted. Otherwise art might still be limted to landscapes of Provence and portraits of rich industrialists.

    • Virginia

      I’m also with Andy’s comment. Or as Henry Ford said it before the Apple’s of this world…”If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”

      An art to listen beyond people’s current needs to provide something they are not even aware. Definitely an article to make you think, Thanks!

    • Jessica Huneault

      I am not yet an empathy expert, but empathy is a subject I’m really interested in, as a professional designer and as doing my master in design in Montreal. I would say that empathy does’t mean to ask people what they want and do it without questioning. Empathy means to take time to observe users and then be able to understand their profond feelings and needs. Once we understand profound user needs, as designers we should be able to wrap up those needs and come up with design criteria that will allow us to innovate and still meet those user needs. We can make an analogy with bionic: if you get inspired by a plant, for your design to be creative an innovative, you won’t simply reproduce the plant. To be able to innovate, you will take the elements that are really interesting about it, and transpose them into design criteria, from what you are going to make ideation.The same principle apply when you use empathic design process. In conclusion, if people asks for faster horses, as empathic designers, we should wonder why and try to understand what are the profound needs behind this request. Then, if the only solution that we come up with is to get faster horses, the problem is certainly not people needs, neither the empathy we used to realize what people needs and feels were, it is our incapacity to transform those observations into design criteria and built innovative design from it. As designers, it is our job to use empathy to capture what users we design for are living-feeling in a situation and find new solutions that people would have never thought about.

      • jim

        Jessica, I’m old enough to remember when car designers asked people what they wanted in a car – Plymouth got ‘chair-high seats’ and their car was flop! Ford asked what their neighbor wanted and got a Mustang. jim

    • Empathy in art

      Andy, I encourage you to take a look at a different way to think about empathy. Specifically, in the creative process as found in art.

      Hope you find it interesting.

  • Richard Anderson

    A reference to this video on Designing with Empathy seems appropriate:

  • Philip W. Sarsons

    Excellent article.

  • Kamil S.

    Such a brilliant article. There is a lot of simple things/tools with we can improve our unique to the world. Great one !

  • marta santini

    fantastic article !!!!

  • Jan Dimitri Schüpbach

    What a great read!

    Thanks to observing & interviewing customers with a great deal of empathy, creativity comes automatically.

    To many people think Human Centered Design is to ask people what they want and then do it. They underestimate empathy. It means to observe, shadow users, recognize their behaviour patterns and then be able to understand their needs, desires and frustrations.

    This step will enable us designers to do a design synthesis. I think this is where the magic happens. Here we turn data into insights and design criteria that will allow us to radical, disruptive innovation thanks to the user insights & our empathy.

  • Gordon Barlow

    I love it! Empathy-driven design Empathy is core to making a more transparent experience. The better we understand our user’s needs, the better we understand how to meet their needs, and by the correct application of empathy we might wisely identify what matters most to the user.

  • thebulletin-cc73f97773519997a12ee155a33dc94c

    Andy C, great point. Reminds me of this from Sam Roxy (paraphrased): “Don’t give the people what they want. The people don’t know what they want. Give them something better.” But I do think the article makes a good point about starting with an understanding of human wants and needs. Start as anthropologists. Then, start designing. Not the other way around.

  • Adam Thomas

    Fantastic post. It is hard to think this way because as you said, it forces you out of the whiteboard in your office and puts you in the uncomfortable position of making you stand in front of the crowd. You may be completely wrong on all the work you have done.

    @andy C has the other part of the puzzle. There are some things you have to know when to push the button on, but I think getting an idea of where the public is can help you determine what they need as well, not just what they want.

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