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 wants.

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.

Visual of an empathy map that describes what the user says, thinks, does, and feels when using a product.
An empathy map describes what the user says, thinks, does, and feels.

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?
An empathy map broken into 5 quadrants: tasks, influences, goal, pain points, and feelings.
Empathy maps can be used to visualize what we know about a persona in an organized way. Image by Paul Boag.

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.

User personas contain demographic data, users motivations, type of personality, and behaviors, such as preferred media channels.
User persona example. Image by Xtensio.

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 job title.
  • 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.

Colored sticky notes are grouped on a white board during an empathy mapping session.
Empathy maps developed during design thinking sessions. Participants placed sticky notes with ideas about the user onto the respective section of the empathy map. Image by  IBM.

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 development cycle.

Use the empathy map as a reference

Empathy maps can be used as design 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.

A framed poster of an empathy map for a user named Brian outlines the details of his quadrants.
Turn an empathy map into a poster and hang it in a high traffic area in your workspace. Image by Paul Boag.


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.