Empathy across systems, design thinking and beyond

I've  been wanting to write about empathy for a while now. Empathy is at the heart of service design, helping us to truly understand the needs of users.

I began thinking about this, not when I worked within research, but when I joined adult social care. Mainly, my role consisted of talking to partners and finding ways to work better together to meet the needs of users. The role was difficult and I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated at the pace of progress.

Ditch the narratives and listen

During my time, I came across a well-embedded public sector narrative, something like, “complex problems”, “financial pressures”, “need for a radically different approach”. For me, the answer always felt much simpler. Listen to users, understand their journeys and design based on their needs. I read a paper recently, however,  which made me question the limits of design thinking.

The paper advocates coupling design with system thinking to give ideas the best possible chance of success:

“While design thinking alone provides a compelling process for idea development, it fails to recognise that without due consideration of systemic complexity and power dynamics, even the best ideas can lie on the shelf unused, and thus without impact.”[1]

It describes the need to have a deep understanding not only of user needs, but also the system where change will occur to identify the right opportunities for design.  Design thinking is only as good as the system it is within.

Fight (for) the systems

If the conditions within that the system are not ready for change, or mature enough to move the narrative from “financial pressures” and burdens for my respective organisation to that of the system, then we cannot design for complex problems and we cannot design for users who are part of a complex system.

Applying system thinking to complex problems means we becomesensitive to the world we live in; [have] an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face …a realisation that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to…”[2].

System thinking means that design teams can take stock of the interdependencies within the system and acknowledge the impact of design to other parts of the system. For design teams this means we can make informed choices and more responsible design outputs.

Empathy all round

For me there is something that needs further expansion in this fusion of design and system thinking, and that is the role of empathy.

Let’s return to my partnership role in adult social care. One of the things that often amused me was that all professionals tell stories about one another and because of the nature of my role, I would hear about them all.

It was interesting to me to hear these stories, as we are talking about the same users – individuals who need a service from us such as a social care assessment or socially rented housing, caught within the public sector system.

All public sector organisations are working within a system of scarcity, faced with constraints either bestowed upon us by policy or limited by resources and infrastructure. Fundamentally, we are working with good intentions, trying our best to meet a need. I was left thinking we should be more empathetic to one another, we should try to understand from the perspective and position of other professionals as well as our users.

Whether you are user researcher trying to establish needs and motivations of users, or a service designer trying to understand the landscape, power dynamics of partners and strategic vision, this all requires empathy and positioning the self in the shoes of others.

Diagram showing empathy sitting between system thinking and design thinking

This means: “going beyond user research and undertaking the thinking like a system […] Systems thinking un­veils the frictions that inhibit change, the veto points and countervailing forces….”[3]

Designing for whole users

Returning to adult social care, I question whether we truly see the user as their whole self, and not simply the part that the council is responsible for. For example, an adult rarely requires adult social care alone. They most likely have health conditions, maybe live in a socially rented household etc. This person is within a whole public sector system and their journey touches and navigates through many organisations. Their goal is probably a simple one - trying to live well and independently for as a long as possible.

For design to work well here, we need to understand the system perspective of the user and invite these respective partners to the table to understand their role within this user’s life, their pressures, anxieties and appetite for working together.

It is nonetheless a challenge to move from empathetic conversations, to a space where partners feel comfortable to prioritise based on user and system need, rather than organisation demand and pressures. It is a brave step for partners and ourselves to act on behalf of the greater good, potentially contributing more than they gain, although with overall benefit to the user. But this is a different blog post for a different day.

Success is not...

Personally, I cannot say I have nailed this fusion of design and system thinking. But I imagine it might look something like sitting in a meeting with system partners and the conversation doesn’t come down to:

  • a finance talk
  • progress against a Gantt chart
  • lack of clarity of why we are coming together.

Instead we'll be focused on user stories, achieving user outcomes and measure the impact we have on people’s lives though a system-wide response. If we get it right, maybe we will have much nicer things to say about one another.


[1] Conway, R., Masters, J., and Thorold, J., From Design thinking to System change: how to invest in innovation for social impact, Page 9.

[2] Goodman, M. The System Thinker, 2018

[3] Conway, R., Masters, J., and Thorold, J., From Design thinking to System change: how to invest in innovation for social impact, Page 18.

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  1. Comment by Angela posted on

    Hi Bhupinder,
    your post really resonated with me. I think yor missing ingredient to achieve this fusion and linking design and system thinking via empathy might be liberating structures, simple methods that make it easy and practical to include, engage and tap into the wisdom, experience and perspectives of everyone. Best of all they are free to use under creative commons license.
    Give it a try, they can be seriously effective and fun at the same time 🙂

    • Replies to Angela>

      Comment by Nicholas Ward posted on

      Thanks for your comment Angela, we love liberating structures and agree that they are great tools for working across teams and organisations.

  2. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    Hi Bhupinder. I agree very much with you. I have been supporting a team in health and social care and I integrate service design with systems htinking. Systems thinking helps to frame the whole context of how the whole workflow is understood and how it shoudl be designed. It would be great to communicate more with you about approach tactics.
    Youre right that the challenges with the staff and managers with this, austerity and the stresses of the work pressures make dealing with staff requiring a carefully designed approach that deals with their characteristics.


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