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Basics of Design – The Importance of Empathy


SAP has announced a new OpenSAP course around the topic of design called “Basics of Design.”  This is not a technical class in nature, but it hits home on what I think is the most important part of designing interfaces for end users.  What is that part you ask?  Empathy!

There are lots of buzz words that float around the SAP Design Thinking space, however empathy should not be considered one of them.

To me one of the hardest and most interesting parts of leading a Design Thinking session is the empathy/observation phases.  This is the phase where you’re on a factory floor, in a store, at the bottom of a mining pit, etc… learning anything and everything you can about a real end user’s job, the functions they perform in the SAP space, and most importantly the challenges they face every day in trying to accomplish their tasks.  Almost all of the time the insights that are gathered here are not only about interfacing with SAP, but more about how they’ve been accomplishing the work they have to do outside the system.  All because they didn’t get great training, thought the process was too complicated, couldn’t remember where to click in the vast world of SAPGUI, or simply thought the information wasn’t needed and didn’t know the downstream impacts.

We have seen many companies try to skip these design phases altogether based on the logistical difficulty of setting up tours/observations.  I can without a doubt say the best projects I’ve been a part of delivering have all included detailed empathy/observation phases where we visit end users at their personal desks/job sites to see exactly what they go through on a day to day basis.  It’s an amazing learning experience not only for us as Design Thinking leaders, but also for employees to see firsthand how people are actually using their system.

The empathy/observation phases can be very difficult for a design thinking session leader to get through, as it can go many directions.  A few examples of the difficulties that arise during this phase can be:


  1. Logistical challenges – where are we meeting, what tours are necessary, are there safety requirements for manufacturing/shop floors, what can I take on the tour, how do I capture everything, etc…?
  2. Process challenges – Design thinking experts are not experts in any one end to end process. We’re there to learn how your users use the system as well as the key process steps to accomplish their tasks.
  3. Observation challenges – There are times we run into observation challenges when we are observing users and how they use the system. Usually this is in the guise of an IT representative trying to restate how the end user “should” be using the system and how it was originally designed.


In the design thinking sessions I’ve been a part of I’ve come up with a few good tips/tricks I always try to put to use to overcome these types of challenges during the empathy/observation phases:


  • Make the most of the technology sitting in your pocket when observing.
    • Take lots of pictures. This can help you stitch every pain point together when back in the design thinking room space.  Pictures of the screen, pictures of the desk, any printouts, hand written items, processes, etc…  All these things are sitting out because they help the person get through their tasks inside or outside the system.
    • There are many note taking apps. I use Evernote to take quick notes on my phone, to then sync to my laptop when we’re done with our observations.  This allows me to show the entire design session attendees what I’ve captured along the way and be able to quickly add to it.
  • Ask feeling based questions
    • This is the definition of empathy! Ask end users how using the system makes them feel.  At what step do they get frustrated, where do they feel the system is wasting their time?
    • Sometimes the question doesn’t need to be asked and is answered in their body language or by comments made by the end user while explaining their process.
  • Look Around
    • The other part of this phase, the “observing” is also very important. When in a design session, I sometimes get laser focused on what a user is performing in the system step by step takes notes and pictures of the screens.  The same amount of importance should go to looking around.
    • Look at their desk, where they sit, what’s on the desk, pieces of paper, what kind of environment are they in, are they in an office or production floor, is it loud, etc… etc…
  • Plan Ahead
    • Design Thinking sessions are usually scheduled at least 2 weeks ahead of time.  This should give time for plant managers, people managers to make some end users available.
    • The more detailed an agenda can be beforehand gives clients and end-users heads up for how much time you’ll need during your time on-site.


The focus on user experience and design within these last 2 years in the SAP space has been a breath of fresh air in my mind.  With SAP Screen Personas, SAP Fiori, Fiori Cloud Edition on Hana Cloud Platform, and other newer technologies SAP is showing that it means business in the UX space.  I look forward to seeing exactly what the new OpenSAP course can offer customers in learning how to engage their greatest advocates (their users!) and to also show the benefits of engaging in these sessions.  I hope these insights, tips and tricks help in your next design session and if you’re still interested, check out the new OpenSAP course being offered, and contact us.

Have other tips or tricks from your design sessions?  Let us know in the comments!


You can find the OpenSAP course details and sign up for free here:


As VP of Products at Mindset Consulting, Jon focuses on how organizations can quickly and easily maximize their SAP investments for improved results and happier employee, customer, and user experiences. A known industry thought he is a highly sought-after industry speaker and resource.

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