A gentle course in empathy mapping

November 18, 2020

If you want to create a positive experience for your users, it’s absolutely essential that you understand their needs and feelings. If you’re not taking into account the humanity of your users, you’re doing it wrong. A process called “empathy mapping” can help you get into their heads and hearts to find out what makes your users tick. Here we cover what empathy maps are, where they fit into the overall UX design process, and most importantly, how to create them.

Your user's needs and feeling and why they are important

It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in psychology to know that your users are driven by a complex of conscious and unconscious motivations. Furthermore, their thoughts and feelings do not fit neatly into a linear format. Your users are not just happy or sad when they first encounter your site/app/product, but confident or fearful, hopeful or suspicious, and so on, often embodying many of these internal states at the same time. So the challenge becomes how to visualize this psychological complexity without losing sight of the unity of your user. Enter empathy maps.

Empathy Maps

What they are

Empathy maps are visualizations of the likely feelings, thoughts, actions, influences, environmental factors, pain-points and goals of your users. A general empathy map captures the internal landscape of your users or customers as a whole, but you can also create a series of specific empathy maps to capture particular user or customer segments.

When they are most helpful

In short, at the beginning. Of course, you can’t create an empathy map until you know something about your users. So you’ll have to wait until after the initial user research stage. But once you’ve done your research and started working on user personas and stories, the time is ripe to try out a few empathy maps with your team.

How to create them

Empathy maps require little to no design skill (evinced by that drawing at the top of the post). Otherwise, following the classic approach, draw something resembling a face (perhaps a smiley if you’re at a total loss for inspiration) in the center of a large whiteboard. Use four diagonal lines radiating out from the face to divide the whiteboard into four equal areas, positioned above, below, to the right and to the left of the face. Although you can come up with your own labels, the area above the face often gets the label THINK and FEEL the area below SAY and DO, the area to the left HEAR, and the area to the right SEE. Many teams also add a PAIN area in the lower left and a GAIN area in the lower right in order to add another useful dimension to their empathy maps.

Roughly speaking, these labels are shorthand for various aspects of a user’s psychological landscape with respect to your site or app:

  • Think and feel = What the user is consciously experiencing and pondering when encountering your site or app.
  • Say and do = The users routines, habits, and activities as they relate to your offering.
  • See = The user’s general environment, including friends, coworkers, the marketplace, distractions competing for their attention, etc.
  • Hear = Statements “in the air” influencing the user.
  • Pain = Pain-points, obstacles, or challenges the user faces.
  • Gain = The user’s goals.

With this basic template in place, give each team member a stack of sticky notes and ask them to write down whatever comes to mind when they consider the various aspects of the user’s experience (represented by the labeled areas on the empathy map). For example, suppose you’re building a site for buying wholesale clothing online. In the THINK and FEEL area you might have sticky notes that read something like:

  • I’ve never heard of this site, can I trust it?
  • Buying clothes without trying them on first makes me nervous.
  • I hope they have the jeans I’m looking for.
  • Their sizes better be accurate.
  • If they don’t fit, is there an easy refund/exchange policy?
  • Free shipping?

In the SAY and DO area you might have sticky notes that read something like:

  • I’m a bargain shopper.
  • I’m willing to hunt for good deals.
  • I buy direct whenever I can.
  • I tell all my friends when I find a scorching deal.

And so on…

After placing all of the sticky notes in their corresponding areas, the empathy map is complete. You now have a rough-at-the-edges, appropriately messy, yet holistic depiction of your user’s inner world as they come face to face with your site or app for the first time.

How do you feel about empathy maps?

Understanding your users’ needs and feelings is essential to creating a positive experience for them. This is where empathy maps shine. They give your team an opportunity to creatively visualize your users from the inside-out. Generally coming immediately after the user-research stage of the UX design process, empathy maps make great complements to personas and user stories. Their flexible, organic, participatory format also make empathy maps easy to quickly create and re-create with the whole team. At its best, the process of populating an empathy map is like an inverted brainstorming session, where the ideas are not yours, but ultimately those of your future users. And their true motivations, if accurately uncovered, will help drive your design in the direction it needs to go.

Want to find out more about how empathy maps can help you connect with your users more effectively? Hit us up!