The beginning stage in the Design Thinking process is empathy. More than just starting out on the right foot or direction, empathy is integral to the Design Thinking methodology because meeting the needs and expectations of clients is completely dependent on the ability to empathize with their perspective, situation, or problem yet to be solved.
IDEO's Human-Centered Design Toolkit defines empathy as a "deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for". By definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Often synonymized with sympathy, which alternatively is to put ourselves in other peoples' shoes and connect with how they may be feeling about their circumstance, empathy is to know these feelings because of relevant first-hand experience.
One of the key approaches for the entire Design Thinking process is to adopt an entirely new frame of mind to better simulate a first-hand experience. Empathy drives the Design Thinking methodology process by helping design thinkers set aside their own perspectives temporarily to cultivate client knowledge. It clarifies our clients' goals, needs, behaviors, as well as the interactions with and within their current environment. A key understanding of the clients' perspective is paramount to finding the best solutions for them. If the "why" cannot be clearly defined, all other parameters leading to a solution or end goal become less discernible or effectively unreliable. Essentially, empathy is the navigation compass continuously pointing out the direction of magnetic north (the clients' goals), helping the design thinking team maintain the course towards ideating a number of feasible solutions.