The Power of Empathy Mapping in Design Thinking

Using empathy mapping to explore your users’ needs, emotions, and behaviors can lead to better design decisions and improved user experiences. Creating empathy maps is best done as a team to achieve deeper insights and ensure the team is aligned.

Begin by defining the purpose of your empathy mapping session. Then, prepare by having a large whiteboard and sticky notes ready.

Iterative Design Process

An empathy map is a tool that externalizes user information to create a shared understanding of their needs and facilitates design decisions. It is traditionally created in a workshop with the learning project team, stakeholders, and SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). Empathy maps can be used at any point in the design process but are most effective when conducted before the first draft of a persona or experience diagram.

The first step in creating an empathy map is to collect research. This could include user interviews, field studies, diary studies, or qualitative surveys. Once the data is collected, it can be organized into the four quadrants of the traditional empathy map: Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels.

The next step is to have the team review and digest the research inputs. Once the team has read the research, they should take sticky notes aligning with each quadrant and add them to the whiteboard. The goal is to cluster the sticky notes collaboratively, noting any repeated themes across the quadrants. This clustering helps the team vocalize and align their findings. Finally, the team should identify outliers that do not fit into a cluster. This allows the team to determine areas where further research may be needed.

Human-Centric Approach

A human-centric approach to design is the key to creating a product that meets user needs. It helps us avoid making assumptions based on generalized sweeping statements and instead take the time to understand what users are experiencing, their needs, and how our product could be useful in their lives. Empathy maps are a valuable tool for this. They provide a visual framework for analyzing the data and stepping into your customer’s shoes.

When preparing for an empathy map session, consider your primary goals. Is it to align your team on who your user is? If so, then be sure to invite all departments to the session. A facilitator can help prevent groupthink and ensure that everyone can contribute.

Once your team is gathered, it’s time to create an empathy map. Begin by identifying the four quadrants. Write them on a whiteboard or table and start by collecting research supporting each one. If you have existing qualitative data, like interviews or heatmaps, include that. You can also use the mapping process to review and refine any existing personas you have. Once the research is gathered, have the team move through each sticky note and cluster them together. The goal is to identify common themes across the different clusters so that you can build a deeper understanding of your users’ experiences.

Defining Ambiguous Problems

Using an empathy map to capture the user’s perspective can help you identify and define ambiguous problems. If you’re working with a team, an empathy map can also help align everyone on the user and their needs. It can point out areas that require further research or a deeper dive into user interviews.

Empathy mapping is a quick way to synthesize data from your UX research and can be done on paper or in a digital whiteboard tool such as Miro. Start by creating a new board and adding an image of the user as the background. Then, add sticky notes to each quadrant: Says, Thinks, Feels, and Does.

Says: This quadrant focuses on what the user says, including verbatim statements from interviews or surveys and general observations. It is common to have overlapping statements in each quadrant, but it’s important to let them speak for themselves to uncover more nuanced insights.

Feels: This quadrant is about the emotions that the user experiences—this can include positive and negative feelings, such as happiness and frustrated or excited and anxious. It’s important to identify both the surface emotions and the underlying causes.

When your empathy map is complete, look at it and review the overall picture. What did you learn? How did it impact your understanding of the user? How can you apply this knowledge throughout the design process?

Creating a Common Understanding

A key aspect of empathy mapping is that it brings together the knowledge of all team members rather than the assumptions of just one person. Empathy maps allow everyone to understand how a particular user feels and what they need, which can help guide the design process.

An empathy map will typically be based on real data, such as information gathered from interviews or surveys. However, even without specific insight, you can still use empathy mapping to build a basic user persona. These are sometimes called “10-minute user personas” and can still offer a useful starting point for your project.

The first step in empathy mapping is gathering the research to form the map’s base. You can do this through various qualitative methods, including user interviews, surveys, and reviews. Then, you’ll need to organize the research into the four quadrants of a traditional empathy map: Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels.