How Design Thinking and Empathic Listening can Improve your Relationship with your Client

How Design Thinking and Empathic Listening can Improve your Relationship with your Client

Design thinking and empathic listening may be some of the most valuable tools you will ever use. It’s true that you will never physically hold them in your hands, but once you have learned these skills, they can be incorporated into every single project you undertake. Through using design thinking and empathic listening, a build/design becomes individual and personal. A cut and paste build is no longer acceptable- the practice of producing a bulk design suitable for all is a thing of the past. Each and every one of your clients is unique, with their own set of needs and wishes and problems to solve. It’s your job to understand these issues, empathically understand them, and provide solutions that work in practice and into the future.

Allergy Standards Ltd is a certification company which uses scientific standards to analyse products in a laboratory setting. Design thinking and scientific standards seem miles apart. But at Allergy Standards, design thinking is at the forefront of everything we do. We start with the human. The asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Mark is, after all, one of the few scientifically proven marks that is solely focused on the impact a product has on a consumer’s environment and the effect this environment has on health.

Our aim is to help the consumer create a healthier home by empowering her/him. To do this we must start with the human, we must empathize and understand. By being human-centric, our challenge expands – we must consider the emotions and the needs of the consumer but also the impact of the product over time, in use and in the constantly fluxing nature of an inhabited building.  

Here at ASL we have developed solutions to a myriad of problems through design thinking. But far more importantly, by being human-centric, through iterative thinking and by opening our minds, we have discovered even more problems and challenges, ones we were previously unaware of. It is the solving of these issues that makes Allergy Standards a successful, innovative global leader in its field. 

What is Empathic Listening?

design thinking and empathic listeningDesign thinking cannot exist without empathic listening. The very first thing to do in Design Thinking is to empathise with your client. ‘Walk their walk’ to better understand the problem you are required to solve.

One way to try to empathise is to talk with experts and learn more about the problem via observation and engagement to get to know their motivations, their way of thinking and experiences. Empathy is crucial to a allow for an unbiased understanding of the clients’ needs. 

Another way to do this is through immersion. You have to literally live with the problem or situation so as to develop a true understanding of the issue.  Empathy allows design thinkers to set aside their own assumptions and biases about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs. Studies conducted by McKinsey reveal that more than 40% of companies don’t even speak with consumers when developing new ideas or products. This is a recipe for disaster.

What is Design Thinking?

design thinkingSimply put, design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. It is a non-linear, iterative process that focuses on the user, challenges any biased assumptions, aims to redefine problems from the users point of view and subsequently arrives at innovative solutions.

It focuses on humans first and foremost, seeking to understand people’s needs and come up with effective solutions to meet those needs. At the core of design thinking is the user, the consumer, the human, combined with an approach that requires empathy and an open mind. By having the innovator live the user’s experience it aims to identify hidden needs, needs the user wasn’t even aware of.

Rather than pursuing an individual idea or point of view, the practice involves people from different disciplines working together to jointly develop a solution to a problem. It emphasises bringing ideas to life based on how real users think, feel and behave.

Albert Einstein was ahead of his time when he said “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”


The Origin of Design Thinking

Design thinking as an approach has been slowly evolving since the 1960’s. Engineers, industrial designers, architects and scientists began to hone in on the issue of collective problem solving in response to the rapidly changing world in the wake of WW2. Computer scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was the first to mention design as a science or way of thinking in his 1969 book, Sciences of the Artificial. He suggested design could be viewed as interdisciplinary- one didn’t need a background in design to understand it. The idea also appeared in Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering Robert H. McKim’s 1973 book, Experiences in Visual Thinking.

Up until the 70s, there was an emphasis on creating solutions but not much in the way of creating a better understanding of the problems to be solved. This changed in 1973 with Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber’s article on “wicked” problems. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning focused on how larger, societal problems may not have definitive answers. Wicked problems have many interdependent factors- many of them incomplete, in flux or difficult to define- making them seem impossible to solve. The authors prioritized gaining a deeper understanding of humans within these wicked problems. Rittel and Webber’s article created the foundation of design thinking as we know it today because it framed both the idea of wicked problems and the prioritization of the individual human aspect of the problem.

Design thinking leaders began to formulate new ways of using existing design-centric problem solving to solve broader, complex, multi-faceted problems. In 1992, Richard Buchanan, the Head of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, published his article ‘Wicked Problems In Design Thinking’, connecting design thinking to the innovation necessary to begin tackling wicked problems.

IDEO, the world’s largest design company, arguably led the crusade for the implementation of design thinking within non-design businesses. Kelley and Brown, IDEO Founder and CEO, have both spoken and written extensively on the topic, regularly affirming the belief that “design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. The popularisation of design thinking as a tool for innovation resulted in many large global corporations adopting design disciplines into their ways of working.


The Process of Design thinking

The process consists of five phases but design thinking should not be seen as a concrete and inflexible approach; stages might be switched, conducted concurrently and repeated many times in order to expand the possible solutions and then focus on the best possible solutions.

The five phases are:


This phase involves collecting as much information as possible about the client or user through observing, engaging and empathizing in order to understand the user’s experience and motivations. Through empathic listening, our biases and entrenched behaviours that usually get in the way, can be set aside.

Conversations with customers, employees and colleagues and experts provide a deeper understanding of the problem, as well as immersing yourself in the physical environment so you can gain a deeper personal understanding of their perspectives.


To find the best solutions, you must know what the exact problem is. Defining a ‘problem statement’ is therefore crucial. You should seek to define the problem as a problem statement in a human-centred manner rather than as your own wish or need. Problem statements should be free of bias and be from the user’s perspective- formed from the information gathered in phase 1. The problem statement is sometimes referred to as a ‘point of view’ – as in, the point of view of the user, and will guide you towards what the user really requires and desires. The Define stage will also help gather great ideas.


This is time given to identify new solutions to the problem statement and to start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem. As many ideas or problem solutions as possible from as many disciplines as possible is preferred. Rather than rush toward solutions that look impressive but are not effective, the idea is to work imaginatively, outside the box, to find the right ones.  Resist the urge to find a solution right away. Instead, shift your mindset to ask questions that might get you closer to the root of the challenge or support improvement.


This is an experimental phase, and the aim is to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. By the end of this stage, the design team will have a better idea of how real users would behave, think, and feel when interacting with the end product. Prototypes may be shared and tested within the team itself, in other departments, or on a small group of people outside the design team.


The product or service is actively tested on the user and feedback is collected. This is the final stage of the 5 stage-model, but remember it is an iterative process so does not mean this is where the process ends.  The results from this phase can be used to redefine one or more problems and inform the understanding of the users, the conditions of use, how people think, behave, and feel, and to empathise. Even during this phase, alterations and refinements are made in order to rule out problem solutions and derive as deep an understanding of the product and its users as possible.

One of the main benefits of this five-stages process is the way in which knowledge acquired at the later stages can feedback to earlier stages thus creating a perpetual loop, in which the designers continue to gain new insights, develop new ways of viewing the product and its possible uses, and develop a far more profound understanding of the users and the problems they face.

Ways Design Thinking Can Help your Relationship with your Client

Now that we know what design thinking is, it is not hard to see how it can be applied to the construction industry. It is true that the design thinking approach can be implemented in numerous industries, but in construction, it works particularly well.

Remember, to do this we must start with the human, we must empathize and understand. By being human-centric, the challenge broadens –yes , we must consider the emotions and the needs of the consumer but also the impact of the product over time, in situ, in use and in the constantly changing environment of an inhabited building. This may be something the client has not considered.

Design Thinking Improves your Relationship with your Client by:

  • Allowing you to understand the clients way of living; each client is individual, no client deserves or wants a ‘copy and paste’.
  • Learning any specific outcomes wanted and why
  • Understanding the needs people have not expressed
  • Design thinking makes it possible to ascertain what really matters to customers and to find the right solution to a problem.
  • It enables the delivery of construction and product solutions that are specifically matched to the client needs.
  • Any specific needs due to asthma and allergies, mobility issues, medical conditions, disabilities can be identified.
  • Design thinking has caused a necessary shift in the industry from an engineering focus to a people-centred, healthy, design approach. It forces us ask the question, what is the impact the product/building on the consumer’s environment and the effect this environment has on health.
  • This realisation is forcing a paradigm shift in the construction industry. This rising awareness makes it clear that it is now time to focus on the impact building materials and products have on our surroundings and the consequent effect this indoor environment has on our health.
  • Design thinking has allowed the merging of scientific processes with empathic listening so, by being human-centric in your approach to the project, by considering the emotions and the needs of the occupant as well as the impact of building materials and products over time, you can deliver an outcome that satisfies the client for many years.
  • Cost efficiency – If the customer does not remain in focus and so feels neglected, misunderstood or mistreated, the consequences can be costly. A report published by British cloud service company New Voice Media shows that US companies lose up to 75 billion dollars each year as a result of poor customer service. When it comes to distinguishing features, customer service is just as important as cost – and it can make or break the relationship with your client.
  • No waste of time – Investing the time early on, in the empathic phase pays off in spades later on. Studies show that the most financially successful companies are those that focus on the user through the entire development process. Because you have discovered what really concerns the client, you can find the right solution.
  • Pleasure of personal relationship.
  • Recommendations by word of mouth, social media etc, improves your reputation.
  • Return business from the client.
  • Because design thinking focuses on the consumer and ensures that the solution – or the product or service – actually works for the client before it is built/incorporated into the home, this ensures the client will not have to live with any “mistakes” for the next 20 years.
  • New technologies come with a number of benefits, but advances in technology and innovation do not automatically lead to a better outcome for the client. If these new technologies are developed in isolation, neglecting to give consideration to the point of view of the user or how the product will perform in situ and over time, then the technology can prove to be useless.
  • By being human-centric, through iterative thinking and by opening your mind, more problems and challenges will be uncovered. But it is the solving ofthese issues that will make you a leader in your field.


Examples of How it Can Work

  1. Client wants a new utility room so she can wash her daughter’s horse riding clothes. Through empathic listening, it is discovered that the horse riding child has a sister with allergies, in particular to hay and this is why the clothes must be washed and kept out of contact with the home environment.

Problem statement: horse rider brings allergens into the house causing her sister to have  an allergic reaction.

Through brainstorming, some of the solutions may now include the building of a utility room with an entrance from outside so that the horse rider may directly access the washing machine. She must be able to place all her clothes in machine without bringing them into the house. If budget allows, having a shower in this room to remove allergens from hair would be beneficial. She must be able to change into fresh clothes here so a closet is needed. She needs a place to store shoes. She needs access to fresh towels – airing cupboard or shelving. The room needs flooring that is easily cleaned and kept free from allergens .

Without empathic listening and stepping into the shoes of the family, none of these issues would have been identified. The family would have simply gotten a ‘cut and paste’ new utility room, not resolving any of their actual needs; the horse rider would tramp allergens through the house on the way to her room, the contaminated clothes would sit in a dirty laundry hamper further contaminating the house. Without access to a shower on arrival home, allergens in her hair may trigger her sister’s allergy.


  1. Family wants a spacious, airy kitchen renovation. Through empathic listening it is discovered that Mum has severe asthma, which has many different triggers and for which she uses a bulky nebuliser machine quite regularly.

Problem statement: She actually means she needs good air quality in this room where she spends a lot of her time so that her asthma can be more controlled. This changes our perspective. We need to consider particles released by cooking and burning fuel, volatile chemicals emitted from paint and cleaning products as well as allergenic particles such as animal dander, pollen, mold and dust mite particles, which can all impact negatively on her indoor air environment. How all the new building materials and products react together and perform over time is paramount, for example a new floor that is impossible to keep clean from asthma triggers such as dust may look wonderful initially but practically over time will not be of benefit.

If the budget doesn’t extend to a new HVAC system, room for an effective air purifier is needed. Extra sockets are necessary to plug this in in various places. Mum uses a nebuliser to take her asthma medication so a comfortable place where she can sit to use her nebuliser may be considered with a nearby flat surface for the machine and a socket.



We live in a world of interlocking, overlapping systems where so many of our problems are multi-faceted, constantly shifting and but also inherently human- so to start with the unique human at the core of the problem is imperative. It means we can change our perspective and can overcome our biases. In construction, design thinking and empathic listening are central to forming a productive relationship with the client. This relationship forms the framework for effective communication and understanding. Stepping into the shoes of the client and living their singular life deepens your understanding of their circumstances and therefore allows you to deliver on their particular needs.

Do you or your company wish to become a Certified Asthma and Allergy Aware Trusted Advisor?

Developed by asthma and allergy science experts at Allergy Standards, the same company behind the world famous asthma & allergy friendly® Certification, the fully online course will teach you how to build a better air quality environment for customers. Our courses are designed to create educated teams capable of advising customers, to help sell more products and build greater trust.

For more information Click Here

Medical & Lifestyle Author Dr Anna O'Donovan

Medical & Lifestyle Author Dr Anna O’Donovan

About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author 

Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award-winning author.


Key Words

design thinking, empathic listening, problem solving, construction industry, design, air quality, indoor air quality, asthma, healthy, allergies, allergens, air purifiers, healthy home, air cleaner, building materials

References and further reading

Design Thinking: The Revolution for Customer Service Click here

Harvard Business Review: Why Design Thinking Works Click here

IDEO Design Thinking Click here

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? Click here


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By |2021-06-14T14:54:30+00:002 February 2021|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on How Design Thinking and Empathic Listening can Improve your Relationship with your Client