Any designer worth their salt knows that empathy is the fuel of innovation.
Without truly understanding who the customer is — and what problems they have to solve — a business will fail to design and deliver successful products.
Of course market segmentations, buyer personas, and customer journey maps can help along the way. But to really tap into a customer’s psyche — predicting what they want, before they know it for themselves! — you need to go a level deeper.
And that’s where the empathy map comes in.
Tried and tested by design thinking teams the world over, empathy maps are a fast-track to authentic customer understanding — and the empathy map technique might be just what you need, to revolutionize your design process.
But before we get into the details, listing templates and empathy map examples, let’s start at the beginning...
An empathy map is a design thinking tool used to create an emotional image of a user or customer. It’s a flexible exercise, useful for both developing new product ideas and better understanding ones already in the market. There are many tools like it, but what separates an empathy map from other ideation models is its focus on what the user is feeling.
Rather than staying surface level — looking at what the user says they want — the emphasis is on the "why" behind their needs.
This helps you make an emotional connection to your customers; better understanding why they're using, or would want to use, your product(s) to begin with.
With this knowledge, you can prioritize certain product benefits or features — not only in your development process, but in the finished outcome and marketing communication, too. If a need-state reveals itself as high priority in an empathy map, then teams need to listen and respond accordingly.
Typically, an empathy map comprises seven key areas of ideation. These are:
You can organize these seven sections in whichever order you like. But most often, an empathy map is laid out like the template below…
With the basics out of the way, it's time to start incorporating empathy maps into your workflow, beginning with when and where to incorporate them.
Though you'll find what works best for your team over time, here are a few use cases where an empathy map can help.
Empathizing with your customers is always important, but at this stage of business development it really is make or break. Why? Because if you don't understand your customers at this stage, you’ll struggle to find any customers at all!
The challenge here is that you’re unlikely to have any concrete data this early into your business's journey. You may feel like a lot of your empathy map is being left up to guesswork, which can be a bit unnerving.
However, your guesswork is probably better than you realize. Trust your instincts, and talk to people about your business. Be as open to criticism as you are to enthusiasm. With any luck, you'll end up with an accurate picture of your ideal customer.
If you're a business that regularly comes up with new product ideas, empathy maps will likely find a place in the planning stages of new developments.
When getting ready to launch a product, it's easy to get lost in demographics, statistics, SWOTs, market gaps, and other busy work. However, you should always return to the people who’ll be using and experiencing your product.
Empathy maps will make your users feel "real" — and that’s essential in product development.
The most powerful brands in the world (Amazon, Apple, Nike, etc.) all have one shared trait — a user-centered culture. Essentially, every employee sees themselves as providing value to the customer.
There are many ways to achieve this, but empathy maps are a great place to start. They can excite and engage new hires, remind old employees of why they're there, and serve as a North Star for team members throughout their tenure.
Now that we know what an empathy map is and when to use one, it's time to figure out how to create one.
The format itself is pretty simple: you can even access a Google version of an empathy map template, right here.
Filling this chart in, however, is not as easy as creating it.
Here's what you’ll need to do.
Empathy maps are best created as a team — that way, you can collaborate and ideate together, to reach deeper insights. But you need to be aligned on goals and expectations, too.
So, before you start, you should discuss:
These questions will give your meeting focus, and that’s essential during creative exercises. When the energy starts to bubble up, it’s good to come back to the purpose of the model — you want to map out a genuine representation of a user, to help guide your product development.
Next, you'll want to have primary research on-hand to inform your creative process. Sometimes, you'll be in a situation where you have limited data to work with, particularly when your company is in its infancy. Gather as much as you can though, even if it’s based on competitor audiences.
If you have an existing user base, survey them, interview them, do a poll on Instagram, read their reviews, watch what they’re saying on Twitter — these are all sources of invaluable information , from which you can build your empathy map(s).
With your research and guiding questions in mind, you're ready to start conceptualizing with your team. This should involve an open discussion where all parties feel comfortable contributing ideas.
It should also be a visual discussion. Of course, everyone could be on their laptops or smartphones, typing away and taking notes. However, this makes it difficult for the event to feel collaborative — and it's challenging to get an overview of how each person's suggestions fit into your map.
For these reasons, it's good to bring a whiteboard, sketchbook, or even sticky notes into the mix — color code them for each section, if you can. Anything that will allow people to draw and write things down for everyone to see is a win. Paste this onto the wall and ensure that everyone can easily view your team's empathy map, as it develops.
Once your empathy map(s) is up on the wall for the whole team to see, it's time to step back and see what you’ve learned. This is where a fun, design thinking exercise transforms into a strategic development tool.
It's likely that conclusions have already started to form — if only in your minds. Now you'll want to pull out a notebook and get those ideas on paper as quickly as possible.
Maybe you've thought of new features, a potential marketing strategy, or you're rethinking your audience altogether? Make sure these insights don’t get lost.
From these conclusions, you will create your plan. This plan will vary significantly depending on how you are going to use your empathy map(s). Someone creating an empathy map for product development is going to lay out a very different plan from someone using a map for staff training.
No matter your goal, it's vital that you set actionable steps and milestones based on these maps. The learnings from an empathy map will help you create the template for your business strategy.
This step is also when you'll want to digitize the empathy map. Put it into a format that every team member can easily access, so that each of you can come back to it whenever you need it.
Say & do.
Think & feel.
The learning? From this empathy map exercise, you might conclude that John needs a web app, built by a computer retailer, to help him filter all his options by himself — he can remove the confusing influence from his peers, and the pressure of the store assistants, and spend time getting to know his options in a relaxed way.
Say & do.
Think & feel.
The learning? Alex is obviously feeling pretty lost. She could do with a helping hand — but what she’s got available just isn’t doing the trick. Perhaps there’s scope for a new, jargon-free, step-by-step mobile app designed for young people doing their taxes for the first time? We have a clear idea of a tone of voice, as well as the steps it’ll need to take the user through.
Empathy maps are a powerful tool in design thinking, but they're only one of many strategies you should rely on — you should also check out the Rose, Bud, Thorn exercise and Hopes and Fears.
And for more advice on organizing your team, vision, and practice, check out the rest of our blog here at EasyRetro.io.