Local government civic servants from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines designing their prototypes for testing.

Beyond Empathy: Lessons from Public Service Design

March 27, 2022

Designing with compassion (and not just empathy) enriches any Service Design — and the role of the Facilitator is key.


An elderly man arrives at the entrance of a provincial town hall, dressed simply, looking nervous, a little anxious and lost. Before he enters the building, he removes his slippers and places them by the side of the door. This is not a required practice nor a common ritual. In fact, it puzzles the civic servants walking past or sitting behind their desks. Nonetheless, they welcome him warmly, inquiring after his business at the hall. He enters barefoot and tells them, humbly, that this is his first time to avail of any service from the local government and that he is there to register his identity.

This is not the introduction to a cryptic novel. Rather, it was part of the ethnographic research “download” during one of the many Service Design Learning Labs our team at KindMind facilitates for local governments as part of their Digital Transformation efforts.

What does a seemingly random observation like that have to do with digitizing public services, you might ask? To me, it means everything. It spells the difference between a purely process-driven orientation vs. a kind, inclusive, human approach to design. This becomes all the more important when dealing with services meant to uplift and protect the quality of life of citizens, especially those living in marginalized communities.

While Public Service Design is premised on human-centered principles, the practice can often feel detached and technical with its focus on the systems and processes that enable customer interactions, the grid-shaped tools like journey maps, service patterns, process blueprints, technical diagrams and the like. It’s easy to be solely concerned about driving efficiencies, especially with government services often characterized by the clichés of bureaucracy — time-consuming visits, confusing forms, endless queues, unexpected costs. We forget that the citizens who avail of these services come with unique circumstances and contexts worth taking into account in the design process.

As was the case for our elderly man. We discovered that this was the first time he would secure a legitimate, government-certified Identification Card because this was something he could not possess while his town was under a separatist regime. He was filled with anxiety because he was illiterate and was afraid he would not be able to fulfill the form requirements. But, he was also optimistic because he understood that securing an ID meant he could now benefit from financial support and services he could not access without proper identification. It seems the thought of that had given him such a sense of gratitude which he expressed through the quiet act of removing his slippers at the entrance, a gesture of respect and humility.

These insights inspired ideas for the creation of a more dynamic and responsive local government portal that would enable even those in far flung areas to access public services. Beyond ideas to minimize time, cost and effort, “designing for extremes” — as well as for delight — meant conceptualizing UX/UI features that would ensure accessibility and seamlessness for both service receivers and service providers. It meant testing copy interfaces that emanated warmth and care. It led to prototyping alternative digital channels that could accommodate people without personal access to the internet. It even went beyond digital and into ideas for redesigning physical spaces at the town hall. Ultimately, it generated ideas for inclusive innovations facilitated by the Service Design process.


Public Service Design should strive for a nobler purpose beyond efficiency — that of bringing humanity and dignity to the delivery of services for every citizen. At the heart of that is the principle of designing with, not just empathy, but real compassion.

While empathy is assuming the point of view of another by “walking in that person’s shoes,” compassion involves greater solidarity and heartfelt concern for the other’s plight. It is much more connective, much more intentional because it comes with the compulsion to act, to help, to be constructive, to be one in the other’s experience.

And this is why the role of the Service Design Facilitator is crucial. Here are a few pointers that have helped orient our Service Design Learning Labs towards kindness and compassion, not just in public sectors but also for private enterprises:

1. Immerse for insights, not just data.

Insights are information that reveal deeper, more meaningful human truths. While ethnographic interviews are fundamental to the Discovery phase of Service Design, it is always worth deepening the exercise of empathizing. Contextual immersion, journey shadowing and even having heartfelt conversations that dig into personal narratives reveal so much more about context and circumstance which can better frame the challenges and opportunities for design.

2. Sensemaking through storytelling generates critical questions.

It may take more time during the sharing of research information to the bigger group but storytelling adds dimension to the “download.” It can lead to recall and probing questions which can then reveal new meanings and understanding of experiences. This can be useful when analyzing moments prior, during and after the availing or delivery of a service which can generate stronger, more transformative ideas.

3. Bring emotion and personal reflection into the design process.

Personal feelings in Service Design? Why not? Going beyond divergent-convergent thinking by providing a safe space for individual and group reflection throughout the design process has led to interesting revelations, especially with regards to the role one plays in the service process. Not only does it deepen the investment for improving services but it also ups the “compassion quotient” and makes for better collaboration among participants.

4. Make room for play and delight.

This can be particularly helpful given the pragmatic lens that Service Design takes. Being focused on step by step actions, service journeys and process maps may create an atmosphere of rigidity that lead to the exclusion of surprising, novel or even simple, overlooked ideas that can improve the experience of a service. Creative exercises, fun icebreakers (in some cases, song and dance breaks!) or reframing questions challenge participants to look beyond the obvious for design opportunities.

5. Design for Extremes.

Services that cater to the marginalized, cater to all. Inclusive innovations arise from the mindset of designing for extreme cohorts and the under-served. In public service this is particularly crucial for the likes of persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, senior citizens, women and LGBTQ+, out of school youths and geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas. Incorporating ideas for wider accessibility and desirability from the get-go avoids redesigns or retrofits that may cost money, time and effort.