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Using an Empathy Map In Design Thinking:
What Is It And How Can It Help?

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.

Create Free Empathy Map board

But before we get into the details, listing templates and empathy map examples, let’s start at the beginning...

What is an empathy map?

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:

  • The user. This is the “fictional” person your map will be based on. You may choose to draw up an empathy map for each target buyer or group, as their needs will differ. Either way, you should base your map on real customer insight — so while the name, age, location, etc. might be a work of fiction, the person you’re describing is based on fact. It can sometimes help to include a stock image, too. That way the team has a visual representation of the user, to refer back to.
  • Say & do. What happens to the customer when the need for your product emerges? What are they saying — to themselves or other people? And what actions are they performing at the time? For example, if you are designing an app to help inner city drivers find available parking spaces, you might write down the target user’s current frustrations — they may be saying, “I’m going to be late for the movies if I don’t find a space soon”, etc. In terms of ‘doing’, maybe they’re driving around in circles, wishing they could text their friends to update them on a E.T.A. Ideally, you would have real quotes from customers, or potential buyers, available to use in your map — try social listening or running user research, to find this out.
  • Think & feel. This is what your user is thinking but not saying — the user's deeper goals, motivations, concerns, reservations, and so on. These might be thoughts they’ve kept secret from other people — fertile territory for emotional connection! How do you uncover these insights, then? In-depth user understanding is essential — you’ll need to use a little intuition, building on what you’ve learned so far.
  • Hear. Products and brands never live in isolation — users are always fielding opinions and recommendations from friends, family and colleagues. In this section, you’ll look to capture some of that insight. What is the user hearing from those around them? How does that relate to the problem they are trying to solve? Does it frustrate them further? How does it make them feel?
  • See. An extension of the ‘hear’ category, what the customer sees is also about what else is happening around them as they encounter/discover the need for your product. What are they observing other people doing? Where, when and how do they initially come across your product (ideally)?
  • Pains. Here, you want to list all the potential pain points associated with your product and/or the problem you’re trying to solve. Returning to our car parking app example, this might be: frustration, embarrassment (late to meetings, etc.), loss of money (from having to park somewhere really expensive - lack of knowledge) parking fines (from parking somewhere they shouldn’t), etc. The deeper/further you go, the more interesting your insights will be.
  • Gains. Lastly, this section will explore the potential wins of using your product. What does success look like for the user? How will your product change their lives?

You can organize these seven sections in whichever order you like. But most often, an empathy map is laid out like the template below…

Template of an empathy map with the sections described above

When should you use an empathy map?

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.

When designing your business model

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.

During product development

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.

As a part of staff training

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.

Template of an empathy map with the sections described above

How to create — and use — an empathy map

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.

1. Define your goals and scope

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:

  • What do you want to learn from your empathy map?
  • Are you creating an overall empathy map or separate maps for specific users — why?
  • Who is going to be the subject of each empathy map?
  • How will this empathy map feed into your project scope? What do you want to learn?

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.

2. Research your users

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).

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3. Visualize your discussion

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.

4. Draw conclusions

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.

5. Create a plan

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.

Empathy map examples

John: Buying a work computer

The user.

  • Age - 35
  • Occupation - Self-employed accountant.

Say & do.

  • “Which brand do you recommend?” - asking his professional network and friends
  • “What does X mean?” - asking a shop assistant
  • “I need something reliable for work.”
  • Creates a long list of pros and cons for each model
  • Asks friends for advice
  • Reads online reviews.

Think & feel.

  • “Will this fit into my budget?”
  • “How many hours/days of work do I need to cover this cost?
  • “I hope this one doesn't break down like my old one”
  • “I need to get back to work asap”
  • Feeling overwhelmed at the options - lacking information
  • Stressed about a big purchase
  • Unsure of what to buy
  • Confused by technical jargon.

See.

  • Lots of adverts for designers and other professions — who’s making computers for accountants?
  • Sees people in coffee shops with Mac — but is that the right brand for him? It’s a lot of money…

Hear.

  • Computer store assistants speaking to him like he’s an idiot — he just wants someone to talk straight to him about his needs
  • No real agreement from his peers as to which brand/model is best for what he has to do.

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.

Alex: Filing personal taxes

The user.

  • Age - 19
  • Occupation - Cashier

Say & do.

  • “How do I do this? I’ve never done this before”
  • “How much will my return be?”
  • “What information do I need?”
  • Asks parents for advice
  • Reads reviews of the app and “how to do taxes” guides online
  • Starts and stops the process multiple times.

Think & feel.

  • “Why is this so complicated?”
  • “What am I missing?”
  • “How much is this app going to cost? Is it worth it?”
  • “What happens if I just don’t do my taxes?”
  • Feeling overwhelmed by acronyms and numbers
  • Stressed by deadlines
  • Worried about messing up
  • Embarrassed to ask for help — other than his parents.

See.

  • Everyone else seems to be getting on just fine.

Hear.

  • “Being able to do your taxes is the first step into adulthood”
  • “If you don’t do your taxes, you can go to jail for years”.

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.

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Looking for more design thinking templates and exercises?

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.