​What rapping on stage taught me about empathy in design thinking

Dec 4, 2018, 9:03 AM

When I registered for the Design Thinking Conference, I had no idea what I had signed up for. Or rather, I knew it was going to take me outside of my comfort zone – but I had no idea how far. If I tell you that the conference was experimental and highly inspired by theatre, you might get an idea. I left for Amsterdam wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into.


Nitor's Ville Henriksson dropping some rhymes.

That I was no longer in Conferansas became clear already when I signed in at the venue. We received a badge, three tickets to breakout sessions, and a card with the name of our conference buddy.

This was a genius move from the organizers, because by assigning everyone a conference buddy, you immediately broke the behavioral patterns of conference participants.

The point of a conference buddy is to have a new-to-you discussion partner during the entire conference. Someone who you haven’t yet exchanged thoughts with and who will hopefully bring you a new perspective on things you experience during keynotes and breakout sessions.

Lesson one: Let the victim take charge

By the way, we need to talk about the breakout sessions. Because that’s where it really got uncomfortable.

You did not get to pick your breakout sessions. Your conference kit had three tickets to the sessions, the names of which did not give many hints on what they were about.

In the session called “Stage fighting” – we learnt how to slap, punch, and pull each other’s hair. We took turns being the victim and acting out the result of the assault. Because without the reaction to a punch, it just wouldn’t look believable.

Did you know that on stage – the victim is actually in charge?

And who could imagine that a session called “The Art of Life” would have you stand on a stage and rap two lines from a song you had written with other participants in just 15 minutes?

Rapping – especially to an audience – is possibly the last thing I would picture myself doing. Ever.

Lesson two: Empathy as a tool to give courage

Now, you might think what does this have to do with Design Thinking?

Well, isn’t this what we sometimes ask of our users? To perform in ways they could never imagine.

How do we build an environment where our users feel safe to participate?

The gentle facilitating skills of Neel Sharma who ran the rap session, showed us that you can get people on board if you just don’t push too hard and instead help everyone to ease into the situation one step at a time.

And how do we get to the core of real needs when they might be obfuscated by sometimes intentional illusion?

Things can look very different from another angle. First impressions can be terribly deceiving, which Adam StJohn Lawrence showed us in the stage fighting session.

Empathy in a design thinking process is not just understanding someone else’s situation or walking in their shoes.

Empathy is also a tool you can use to help people overcome obstacles. It helps you discover the actual problem that needs to be solved.

Empathy and compassion can help us not to judge our subjects in difficult design situation.

Lesson three: Rethink your approach

The Design Thinking Conference challenged all us participants to not just accept a status quo, but to rethink how we approach design.

It forces us to consider situations and design dilemmas from every angle. Your view on empathy will certainly stretch beyond the textbook description once it is time to return to your daily tasks.

Getting uncomfortable together with other conference participants makes it blatantly clear how important empathy is as a part of the whole design process.

Empathy is not just a step while you work your way through the double diamond.

It has to be present in the whole process – from start to finish. Throughout your string of double diamonds, as you iterate your problem and its solution. You need to bring it with you when you define, ideate, prototype, and test.

I came home, not only with an enriched view on empathy, but empowered by having braved all those moments outside of my comfort zone.

I saw the power of empathy in action.

It made it possible for me to rap on stage.

Empathy is the strongest tool in our toolbox, and we need to apply it more generously.



Annika Madejska is a Designer at Nitor with a passion for interaction design and user research. She doesn’t quite understand the concept of “spare time” as she is currently studying full time for an additional university degree in informatics while working. She also does historical re-enactment where she likes to focus on textile crafts and recreating pages from illuminated manuscripts.