A user recounts a typical workday while the design team listens and takes notes to record their first impression of the concerns and desires of the user.


Design thinking is a form of user-centred design so a good designer will first find out what is going on in the life of the user to determine their activities, feelings, ideas, worries, and where these are taking place to get a clear picture of the environments involved, not just places but also people. The designers try to put themselves in the position of the user, which is the crucial Empathy phase in design.

Design thinking is not an easy activity as it requires design-researchers to take themselves outside of their normal and personal frameworks for interpreting the world. Since we have a natural tendency to consider our own point of view as the most relevant, changing this frame of reference may be quite difficult.

“Whenever I climb, I am followed by a dog called ‘ego’

Friedrich Nietzsche

Design thinking starts with a detachment from this normal attitude, a “narcissistic injury” as Freud might have called it. Not me but the other is the starting point. Not the designer but the user is considered the expert in their domain so the first step is to connect to this user’s “expertise”, which includes not just their expert-knowledge in the field, but certainly their hopes, fears, frustrations and ambitions.

What does the user think, feel, desire – those are the dimensions that a designer wants to connect to. Design thinking is therefore not just focused on collecting as much data and information as possible, but above all on grasping how the users contribute meaning to their (work) environment.

The thoughts and feelings of a user take shape in a specific context. If we want to understand how to improve the quality of work for a prison guard, we must visit the prison and actually sense what this person is experiencing every day. Developing empathy is a form of ethnographic research where you go out into the field and observe in order to get to real experiences in a unique context. Designers do this by observing individuals through a typical workday, recording their activities and taking notes about how they experience their environment. The exercise ‘Imagining a day in the life’ is this type of observation of one day in the life of the user.

However, when it is not possible to conduct such deep field research, a variation on this activity combines storytelling with understanding the daily life of the user. As the users recount their typical workdays, the design-researcher takes notes to record and then think about how people spend their time and how they experience their activities. Although observations on location are preferable, this variation will help to gather a realistic picture of the daily life of the user.

The activity Imagining a Day in the Life can also be used to develop personas and user journeys and for empathy mapping. The notes that are taken  are shared within the design team to then extract more detail, as well as to detect certain commonalities and patterns as part of the synthesis process, where the team gathers all the information to develop deeper insights into what motivates the user.


One user, who may also be a representative of the client or stakeholder for whom you are designing, recounts a typical workday. All team members listen and take notes on a sheet with 4 different categories:

The task is to take notes of all the aspects that strike you or stand out, in these different categories:

  1. Activities: What is the person doing?
  2. Places: What characterizes the physical environment?
  3. Beliefs/Values: What is important to this person?
  4. Concerns: What are the worries?

When the user has finished this story, the team members go back to their team working space and each team member gets 4 minutes to summarize their most relevant findings orally with the rest of the team, and writes (at least) 3 on sticky notes to post. Ideally, the team has its own working space where all these notes on the wall become part of the team’s space saturation.