How to use Empathy to Design a Better Event

Being in school for social work was interesting because while there are definitely things that you need to learn in order to do the job well, the main skill it requires is empathy, which is nearly impossible to teach in a classroom. Fortunately, social work programs require field work where you get to build your empathy skills. Largely, though, I think empathy is something that just has to develop with time and conscious thought.


Empathy is an incredibly important life skill because it is useful in almost any situation, but in particular I love the way it intersects with my job at Map Dynamics. In software, “Empathic Design” is a new buzzword that really just means putting yourself in the user’s shoes and imagining what the user is thinking and feeling, and building your design based on that. It seems like an extremely simple concept, but if you’ve ever used a frustrating piece of software, you know it’s not always present!

To me though, the concepts of empathic design applies to so much more than software. Empathic design applies to anything you want your customers or members to experience. It’s particularly important when designing an event. We typically use the word “planning” for an event, but I think designing is actually more appropriate. That language assumes that you are taking creative ownership over your event and the experience, which is vital.

So what does empathic design look like for events?


The first step is to imagine every piece of the event experience. This goes from the first time the attendee learns your event exists, to the last time they ever think about it. An event lasts so much longer than the 2-3 days you have your programming! Here are some examples of things you’ll want to think about.

Before the Event

  • What does the process of deciding to attend the event look like? What information do you have available to help someone make that decision? Have you incited a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out)?
  • Once someone has decided to attend, what is the registration process like? Does it get them excited about the event?
  • Once they’re registered, is there something for them to do between now and the event, or is it out of their minds and merely an item on the calendar?

During the Event

  • When they first arrive, how are they feeling? Shy or nervous? Confused about where to go? Excited and ready to jump into the fun right away? Try to account for as many different feelings as you can.
  • What is likely to cause frustration? Is it difficult to figure out where to go? Are people getting burned out by going to too many sessions back-to-back? Is there enough time for people to change clothes, freshen up, and respond to a few emails between activities?
  • Account for your introverts! Find ways to create structured social interactions, and plan some optional activities and/or some intentional downtime to recharge those social batteries.

After the Event

  • Are people sad to be leaving? How can you keep the feelings of fun and connection from the event going?
  • Can you use this opportunity to begin the cycle of your next event - how are they feeling about that event right now?
  • How are your attendees processing what they have learned? How are they able to take that knowledge back to their daily lives? Is there anything you can do to keep this going?


Of course this is not an exhaustive list of the things to think of when designing an event, but imagining it from a human perspective is an excellent way to start. Imagine your attendees as complete people with families back home, personal lives, and different personality types. While more and more education is moving to the virtual space, in-person events are still (literally) the place to be for networking and fostering connection. What you’re selling is an experience, and if you can design it with empathy you’ll be able to create a much better one for your attendees!