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Empathetic Human-Centered Design Overlay on Design Thinking Post COVID-19

By Amy Monaghan posted 04-21-2020 16:12


Please enjoy this co-authored blog by Amy Monaghan, Senior Practice Innovations Manager, Perkins Coie and Mike Ertel, Practice Innovation & Knowledge Attorney, Paul Hastings.

The purpose of this blog post is to encourage using empathetic, human-centered design as an overlay on Design Thinking when creating solutions for your law firm.  We decided this was an important topic earlier this year before COVID-19, when we could still meet in person and were not confined to working at home.  Now, after COVID-19 has changed our reality, we think empathy is more important than ever. 

Human-Centered Design vs. Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a 5-step process where you (1) empathize, (2) define, (3) ideate, (4) prototype, and (5) test to create products/solutions.  Human-centered design is a mindset and tool applied over Design Thinking to make sure the product/solution actually creates a positive long-term impact for and end user.  But it all starts with empathy!

COVID-19 Environment

COVID-19 has made the world a daunting place because family members are getting sick or dying, businesses are struggling to stay alive, millions are out of work, and the healthcare system is stretched beyond its capacity.

Those of us who are privileged to have our health, keep our jobs, and work in sectors that permit remote work—including many of us in legal—are struggling to balance new demands like being isolated with family/roommates, caring for sick family members, being in cramped or non-existent home “offices” with poor Wi-Fi, homeschooling children, dwindling toilet paper supply, and general anxiety about everything. 

How do we create solutions for our colleagues who are going through these hard times?  We must first empathize.

Empathizing with Effects of COVID-19

It's not difficult to have empathy because we are all isolated under similar circumstances.  We all read or watch the daily news that negatively impacts us all.  So, how will empathy help us design impactful, long-term solutions for our firms?  What does human-centered design look like in the time of COVID-19 (and hopefully, soon beyond)? 

Employing Empathy

Empathizing is the first step in the design thinking process.  And human-centered design ensures that tools/solutions create actual positive long-term effects for those you are designing for.

Empathy is the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand their lives, and start to solve problems from their perspectives.” (IDEO Field Guide to Human-Centered Design).  

This pandemic has “humanized” all of us.  For those working remotely, we have no separation between our home life and our work life.  We see our colleagues and clients homes on video calls, their kids (furry and non-furry alike), and more of their personality through their surrounding or even their attire.  We are witnessing everyone acclimate to new realities and we are innovating to help our attorneys continue to provide efficient and excellent legal counsel for our client.

How Can You Start Empathizing for Solution Design?

Simple.  Ask questions.  Ask more questions. And then ask even more questions.  Observe your end-user and asking in-depth questions to understand better their experience.  This will help you empathize with them, and then use that empathy to create solutions that work and are meaningful.   


There are books, courses, and conferences on empathetic design and design thinking.  This blog post only scratches the surface.  Our hope is to get you thinking about empathy and how to use it in your daily routine.