Empathy is the first thing you need in order to design packaging your customers will love.
When you empathize with your customers, you gain a full understanding of their feelings and experiences. Without empathy, it’s almost impossible to design a product or packaging that your customers will eagerly buy.
A definition of empathy
Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
In other words, empathy is the ability to step into your customer’s’ shoes and see the world the way they do without them telling you exactly how they feel or what they’re experiencing.
Why empathy matters so much when it comes to packaging design
Packaging informs how your customers first perceive your products. In many ways, your packaging matters more than the product itself to get a sale, because the packaging is what will get customers to pick up your product and try it out for the first time.
When you have a deep understanding of your customers’ experiences, wants, and needs, it is much easier to create packaging that is useful to them and that evokes the emotions that will encourage them to buy.
Packaging designed with empathy: cereal vs. beer
You can see packaging that was developed with empathy throughout your grocery store. For example, a box of Frosted Flakes was designed specifically with its primary customers, kids, in mind. Cereal boxes are shaped so that children can easily pick them up, and then open and pour them. Tony the Tiger also appeals to kids’ sense of imagination and love of animals. Even the name is simple and straightforward. Kids know exactly what they’re going to get in that box.
In contrast, beer bottles are designed so that an adult can comfortably hold them for long periods of time. Craft beer labels and colors often look retro or sophisticated because their drinkers want to feel like they’re connoisseurs.
Both of these products were designed with empathy for their customers. Their designers came out with vastly different designs, and that’s good, because they are meant to attract completely different buyers.
The process for developing empathy with your customers
In short, the process for developing empathy with your customers looks like this:
- Notice patterns
- Brainstorm for solutions
First, interview them and listen to their answers with empathy.
Listening with empathy means hearing beyond what they tell you and knowing when to dig deeper. It means looking at their expressions when they speak so that you feel when they’re holding back. If they tell you about their experiences, don’t take them at face value. Instead, always ask why they do what they do.
For example, if someone tells you they drink orange juice first thing in the morning, it could mean many different things about their emotions. Maybe they drink it in the morning because that’s what they did as a kid, and they always think about their mom when they do it. Or perhaps they drink it because they think it’s healthy and want to start their day feeling like they’re taking care of their body. Each of these emotions would lead to a different design concept.
If you can, observe people using your product or one like yours.
How do they engage with the packaging? What gets them stuck? What brings them pleasure?
(If you don’t think packaging can cause pleasure, think about the act of opening a can of soda. The pop and fizzle is an irreplaceable part of the experience of drinking the soda.)
Part of designing with empathy is understanding how your customers will engage with your product.
In the case of Immodium, Jonathan Herbst points out that the packaging was designed without empathy for the user. While Immodium provides relief from diarrhea, the packaging can be very difficult to open — not great for someone who needs to get to it quickly.
3. Notice patterns
What do you notice about the patterns that have come up with your customers in interviews? Do they express common ideas? Are there commonalities in how people use your product or ones similar to it?
Use these themes to develop a more generalized picture of how your customers see things, what they experience, and how they feel. That picture will help you design products and packaging that are much more empathetic to your customers.
4. Brainstorm for solutions
Once you’ve observed patterns and developed a picture of how your customers feel, see, and experience your product, you can begin coming up with solutions for design that are informed by empathy.
Empathy for product makers and empathy for customers
When I create a design, I engage in two levels of empathizing.
One is with you, the product maker. Your experiences, feelings, and perceptions inform your design because your product is a reflection of you and your business.
The next level is with your customer. Their experiences, thoughts, and feelings are integral to the packaging design for your product as well.
If you want a packaging design that is true to your brand and that appeals to your customers, I would love to talk to you. Let’s set up a time to discuss your product.