Having a good understanding of the people
you design for is essential if you want to build a commercially successful
product. While designers have many techniques that help them develop this
understanding, there’s one key technique with a lot of advantages called empathy mapping.
As the name suggests, empathy maps help
product teams build empathy with their end-users. It gets team members thinking
from a user-centered perspective and helps them understand the users needs and
In this article, I’ll define what empathy
maps are and share 10 practical tips to help you develop better empathy maps.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another person’s situation and feelings. We often hear the word “empathy” used as a synonym to “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is a core skill for designers because it allows them to identify with users and adopt their perspectives.
What is an empathy map?
An empathy map is a visualization tool used to articulate what a product team knows about a user. This tool helps product teams build a broader understanding of the “why” aspect behind user needs and wants. This tool forces product teams to practice empathic design, which shifts the focus from the product they want to build to the people who will use this product. As a team identifies what they know about the user and places this information on a chart, they gain a more holistic view of the user’s world and his or her problems, or opportunity space.
Empathy maps vary in shapes and sizes. A
typical empathy map
includes four quadrants:
- Say – What the user says about the product. Ideally, this section contains real quotes from users recorded during interviews or user testing sessions.
- Think – What is the user thinking about when interacting with a product? What occupies the user’s thoughts? What matters to the user?
- Feel – This section contains information about the user’s emotional state. What worries the user? What does the user get excited about? How does the user feel about the experience?
- Do – What actions does the user take? What actions and behaviors did you notice?
While the empathy map described above is useful during initial analysis, it’s a bit too generic for brainstorming sessions focused on user experience design. In an attempt to make empathy maps more specific to UX design, Paul Boag proposed a format that is much more useful for product design. The map contains a different set of categories:
- Feelings – How is the user feeling about the experience? What matters to him or her?
- Tasks – What tasks are users trying to complete?
- Influences – What people, things, or places influence how the user acts?
- Pain points – What pain points might the user be experiencing that they hope to overcome? What are their fears, frustrations, and anxieties?
- Goals – What is the user’s ultimate goal? What are they trying to achieve?
Empathy maps and user personas
Empathy maps and user personas are two closely related concepts. Empathy maps usually serve as a foundation for the user persona. After you get comprehensive information about your users, you can transfer this information to the model of the persona. Personas should represent a real person (your end-user), which will have more human characteristics such as name, age, motivations, personality, age, traits, and so on.
When should you use empathy maps?
In the UX design process, empathy maps are best used from the very beginning of the process. Ideally, they should be created right after initial user research is done. In that case, they’ll have a substantial impact on product requirements and help product teams develop a meaningful value proposition.
Five things to do before the session
1. Define your primary purpose for empathy mapping
Before creating an empathy map, you should have a clear
understanding of the importance of having one. There are two typical cases
where you need to create a map: for a general understanding of your users, or
for understanding a specific task or situation. For example, if you want to
understand a particular user’s behavior ━ e.g. a certain kind of buying
decision ━ you’ll need to create a task-based empathy map or an empathy map based on a single decision.
2. Conduct research
The best empathy maps are drawn from real data. Gather
reports from user interviews, diary studies, or qualitative surveys. Once you
have collected the necessary information, ask each team member who will
participate in empathy
mapping to read through the research individually prior to the session.
Once all team members are familiar with the research data, you can proceed with
the mapping process.
Tip: The most valuable ideas usually come from time spent listening to users. Start your project by interviewing and observing current and potential users to understand their pain points and aspirations better.
3. Don’t do it alone
While it’s possible to create an empathy map alone, it’s
better to do it in a team. Empathic
design is a team sport, and it’s essential that each team member thinks
about the user when crafting a product. Creating empathy maps is a great team exercise that makes
team members gather together and synthesize information about users. Invite all
core product team members ━ product managers, designers, developers, marketers
━ to the session.
Tip: Invite stakeholders to the session too. Having stakeholders there
during mapping sessions is beneficial for two reasons. First, it’s possible to
create richer empathy maps
by balancing business goals and users’ needs. Second, it’s possible to ensure
that the product team and stakeholders are on the same page.
4. Make sure you will have enough time for the session
While the actual session shouldn’t take too
long ━ usually about 30-60 minutes ━ it’s better to give yourself extra time
and book a room for an additional 30 minutes. You’ll need 15 minutes before the
session to make sure that the place is ready with materials such as a
whiteboard, sticky notes, and markers. Following the meeting, you’ll need 15
minutes to summarize all the findings.
Tip: Print out any relevant information for the project that can serve
as cues during the session. Having this information printed will prevent team
members from using digital devices during the meeting.
5. Invite an experienced moderator to the session
A moderator is a person responsible for facilitating a working session. The role of a moderator consists of asking questions that will make team members brainstorm user characteristics. An experienced moderator is a person who:
- Doesn’t ask leading questions. Leading questions are questions that frame the participant’s mind around a particular answer. This often happens when a part of the answer is accidentally contained in the moderator’s question or the moderator subconsciously directs the participant to answer in a certain way by inserting their own opinions into the questions they’re asking.
- Doesn’t express their own opinion. Moderators should always control their reactions.
- Makes sure everyone participates in the activity.
Five things to do during and after the session
1. Always do a one-to-one mapping
Follow the rule, “one persona per map.” This means, if you have multiple personas, there should be an empathy map for each. Mixing different personas in one map won’t give you valuable insights.
2. Create context
Start by defining who will be the subject
of the empathy map,
or persona, and what they’ll do, or the goal they want to achieve. It’s worth
mentioning where the subject is located when trying to accomplish that goal;
for example, a tourist at the airport trying to order a taxi using a mobile
app. The point of creating context is to make sure the team understands and
empathizes with the subject’s situation.
3. Add the basic characteristics of the persona
Before you start asking questions, it’s essential to ensure the team is ready to morph into their user persona. Here are a few simple tricks that will help you get your team into the mood and make the persona feel more real:
- Give the persona a name and a
- Fill in some personal details.
You might want to draw eyes, a mouth, a nose, ears, or a hairstyle to differentiate
the persona from other profiles.
4. Encourage team members to talk about their thoughts
After you define the essential characteristics of a persona, it’s time for the main session. The team brainstorms user characteristics by answering questions like “What are the user’s pain points when using a product?” Each team member should write their responses on post-it notes and stick them to the map. It’s essential to have the team members talk about their sticky notes as they place them on the empathy map. By asking questions, it’s possible to reach more profound insights ━ such as why team members really think the way they do ━ which can be valuable for the rest of the team.
Tip: Instead of writing directly on the map, use post-it notes and stick
them in sections. Sticky notes can be easily removed, changed, or grouped. This
will help you move insights around and cluster similar notes together that
belong to the same quadrant. It’s also better to use colored post-it notes and
assign a color to each team member. This will help improve the process and the
results of mapping.
5. Summarize the results
At the end of the session, review the
completed empathy map
and discuss any patterns. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about
the session. Ask them what new insights they learned that will help them during
product development or what hypotheses they have about the users they’d like to
validate. Once you collect all the information, organize it into a summary and
share it with team members.
Things to do after the session
The benefit of the empathy map doesn’t end with the workshop
itself. As a design artifact, an empathy map can help the product team along their product’s
Use the empathy map as a reference
Empathy maps can be used as documentation. An
empathy map can be a North Star to guide your team in times of uncertainty;
team members can use it when they need to validate an assumption about their
users. But, it’s vital to keep empathy maps up to date by revising and
adjusting them as you learn more about your users.
Turn your empathy map into a poster
It’s possible to create a nice reminder of
what the user is thinking or feeling by turning an empathy map into a poster.
Create a few copies of the map and hang them around the office. This helps
ensure the user remains in people’s minds as they work.
Empathy design is a great way to make your product team think about using a customer-first philosophy. When done well, empathy maps create a chain reaction that affects the entire project. Empathic design leads to a deeper understanding of how users affect the product requirements, which affects the product strategy, affecting the prototypes, and as a result, makes for a better final design of a product.