Original Research

Towards a definition of ‘empathic understanding’ in industrial design practice

Veronica Barnes, L.J. Theo, Vikki Eriksson
The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa | Vol 20, No 1 | a1426 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/td.v20i1.1426 | © 2024 Veronica Barnes, L.J. Theo, Vikki Eriksson | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 November 2023 | Published: 11 April 2024

About the author(s)

Veronica Barnes, Department of Design, Faculty of Informatics and Design, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa
L.J. Theo, Department of Media Studies, Faculty of Informatics and Design, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa
Vikki Eriksson, Aalto Design Factory, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland


Empathy is often not well defined, particularly in design. While the practice of designers developing a deep understanding of the people who use their products is recommended, the details of how to do this are limited. This problem of vagueness about empathy in design makes it difficult for product designers to take suitable actions to produce best results for the users. Through a strategic examination of a body of literature, across seven databases relevant to design, the systematic literature review adds to a discussion on empathy within the designing process. Study limitations included the complex nature of empathy itself, and multiple uses of the terms design and product. Findings indicate a contradiction of internal and external factors affecting empathy in design, and are considerably more complex than just an ‘accepted’ part of the design process. Shifting towards user-centred design in industrial design means that a considerably more nuanced understanding of empathy is needed, for implementation in design practice. By better understanding the concept of empathy as a duality, all stakeholders can manage expectations around empathy ‘behaviour’, and empathy as part of the design process. Empathy needs to be recognised as a complex phenomenological relationship between process (external) and person (internal) within industrial design. Practical, theoretical and societal implications of this concept are discussed.

Transdisciplinary contribution: Empathy in product design practice represents several fields, related to human behaviour and interactions. This review’s contribution is to confirm areas for further research and the importance of developing theory to address the complexity of design practice.


empathic understanding; empathy; industrial design; systematic literature review; user interaction

JEL Codes

D91: Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making; L69: Other; O31: Innovation and Invention: Processes and Incentives

Sustainable Development Goal

Goal 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure


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