What is Empathy Mapping?

Jul 17, 2023 | User Experience

Empathy is the psychological ability to emotionally relate to the feelings, experiences and thoughts of others. In the world of user experience (UX) design, an empathic understanding of users is paramount when it comes to designing meaningful and influential experiences.

To design meaningful and influential experiences, UX practitioners must delve deeply into the psyche of their target audience.  And in recent years, empathy mapping has become a powerful tool granting UX practitioners an easy method of delving deeply into the psyche of their target audience, and developing a holistic understanding of users’ needs, behaviours, and emotions.

This technique has gained significant traction in recent years, and in this article, we will examine the concept of empathy mapping, its significance in UX design, the components of an empathy map, and the procedure for constructing one.

What is empathy mapping?

Empathy mapping is a collaborative visualisation and design thinking technique that helps UX practitioners articulate what they know about a particular type of user. It externalises user knowledge in order to curate a shared deeper understanding of user needs and aid in decision-making.

Its visual representation, known as an empathy map, serves as a bridge between the product team and stakeholders, allowing them to step into the user’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.

Traditionally, an empathy map is usually divided into four quadrants: Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels. Each quadrant represents a different aspect of the user’s perspective. The user or persona is placed in the centre of the map.

  1. The “Says” quadrant comprises the user’s verbal expressions during interviews and usability studies, capturing their direct quote during research.
  2. The “Thinks” quadrant focuses on what the user is thinking throughout the experience, revealing their mental process and what matters to them. This also uncovers spoken users’ thoughts.
  3. The “Does” quadrant encompasses the user’s actions and behaviors, providing insight into their physical interactions. It reveals how users behave, and what actions they take, shedding light on their goals and challenges.
  4. The “Feels” quadrant represents the user’s emotional state and how they feel about the experience e.g., excitement, fear, anger, etc.

Empathy map variations

Different variations of empathy maps exist, each tailored to serve specific purposes or provide specific perspectives.

For example, one-user empathy maps are tailored for individual users based on direct interviews or diary studies.

On the other hand, multiple-users or aggregated empathy maps are used to represent a user segment and are created by combining multiple individual empathy maps

Here are the purposes each empathy map variation serves:

  1. One-user empathy maps: These focus on a single user’s experience, providing detailed insights into their specific behaviours and needs.
  2. Multiple-users/Aggregated empathy maps: These synthesise themes across a group of users with similar behaviours, and are useful for identifying common patterns and creating personas.
  3. Expanded quadrants empathy maps: These include additional quadrants like ‘Goals’, ‘Pains’, and ‘Gains’ to capture more detailed aspects of the user’s experience and motivations.

Empathy mapping vs user journey mapping

Empathy mapping and user journey mapping are both tools that help UX practitioners gain a better understanding of their users; however, their purposes and formats are distinct.

A user journey map essentially depicts a user’s interaction with a product or service over time. This helps UX practitioners identify pain points, opportunities, and moments of delight along the user’s journey. It also serves to align various stakeholders with the needs and expectations of the user.

In contrast, an empathy map is a snapshot of the user’s mental state at a particular time. It does not depict the events or interactions leading up to that juncture. It focuses on the internal state of the user as opposed to their external behaviour.

In essence, it enables UX practitioners to empathise with and comprehend the user’s perspective. It also facilitates the generation of hypotheses and insights regarding the user’s problems and solutions.

user journey mapping

Why is empathy mapping important in UX design?

Empathy mapping plays a crucial role in UX design as it helps UX practitioners develop user-centred solutions. By fostering empathy, UX practitioners can go beyond assumptions and gain genuine insights into user needs and behaviours. Here are a few reasons why empathy mapping is essential:

  1. User-centric design: Empathy mapping encourages a user-centric approach, ensuring that design decisions are grounded in real user insights rather than assumptions.
  2. Emotional understanding: By capturing users’ emotions, empathy mapping helps UX practitioners understand the underlying motivations and triggers that influence user behaviour
  3. Identifying pain points: Empathy mapping allows UX practitioners to identify pain points, frustrations, and unmet needs, leading to more effective problem-solving.
  4. Effective communication: Empathy maps serve as a visual and tangible tool to communicate user insights across the design team, stakeholders, and clients, fostering a shared understanding.
  5. Guides user testing and validation: Insights from empathy mapping can inform the creation of more effective user testing scenarios and validation strategies. By understanding what matters most to users, UX practitioners can tailor their testing methods to gather more relevant feedback, further refining the design.

    Advantages of empathy mapping

    As detailed above, empathy mapping is a highly efficient tool that can help UX practitioners better understand their customers’ experiences and highlight areas for improvement.

    Some advantages of empathy mapping include the following:

    1. Improves understanding of users: Empathy maps provide you with an easy way of understanding your target audience and their needs, wants, thoughts, and feelings.
    2. Creates better customer experiences: By better understanding your users, you can create more enjoyable experiences that will convince them to keep coming back.
    3. Easy to complete: Empathy mapping provides you with an easier way to sort your user’s feelings, thoughts, and actions into simple categories and create a new plan for improving both your product and their experience.
    4. Creating user-centric approaches: A better understanding of your customers will help you create more user-centric approaches tailored to their needs.
    5. Improves customer loyalty: Empathy mapping can help organisations empathize with their customers, establishing more meaningful customer connections and enhancing customer loyalty.
    6. Support for persona development: The rich, qualitative data captured in empathy maps can be instrumental in developing detailed user personas. These personas can then guide design decisions throughout the product development lifecycle.
    7. Reduction of biases and assumptions: By grounding design decisions in real user insights captured through empathy mapping, teams can reduce the influence of personal biases and assumptions, leading to more objective and user-centred solutions.
    8. Facilitates of creativity and innovation: A deep dive into the user’s emotional landscape can inspire creative ideas and innovative design solutions. They help designers to think outside the box and come up with novel design solutions that address not just the functional but also the emotional and psychological aspects of the user experience.
    9. Enhances problem framing: Empathy mapping helps in framing the problem space from the user’s viewpoint, context and emotional landscape, which is critical in defining the right design challenges to tackle. Understanding this enables designers to frame problems in a way that leads to more user-centric solutions.

    Limitations of empathy mapping

    Empathy mapping is not fool-proof and learning about its limitations is essential in its applications.

    Some limitations of empathy mapping include the following:

    1. Limited scope: Empathy maps are designed to capture the needs and perspectives of a specific audience, but may not capture the needs and perspectives of other stakeholders i.e. stakeholders and suppliers.
    2. Lack of context: As empathy maps tend to focus on an individual user’s interaction with a product or service, they may miss the wider context. For example, much of a user’s emotions or experiences are affected by environmental factors that may be captured on an empathy map.
    3. Incomplete data or assumptions: Empathy maps utilise data that may not be accurate or complete, leading to incorrect or incomplete insights.
    4. Lack of actionable insights: Empathy maps can help identify users’ needs and perspectives but they may not provide actionable insights on how to address those needs and perspectives.
    5. Static nature: Because empathy maps are static representations, they may fail to capture the dynamic nature of users’ thoughts and emotions, which will change over time or in response to different situations.

    Time-consuming and expensive to create: Creating an empathy map requires a collection of data and input from multiple stakeholders, which may be time-consuming and expensive.

What are the components of an empathy map?

Persona

Fundamentally, a persona is a fictional representation of a typical or ideal user based on real data and research. This helps UX practitioners create a realistic and relatable picture of who they are designing for.

A persona usually includes:

  • A name and a photo
  • Demographic information such as gender, age, location, education, occupation
  • Behavioural information such as goals, tasks, pain points, preferences
  • Psychographic information like personality traits, values, attitudes

A persona should always be placed in the centre of an empathy map to remind UX practitioners who they are empathising with.

Read: Guide to Creating User Personas for UX

Quadrants

As mentioned earlier, an empathy map is divided into four quadrants: Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels. Each quadrant represents a different aspect of the persona’s perspective.

To fill in each quadrant, UX practitioners should use data and evidence from various sources such as interviews, surveys, observations, analytics, etc. They should also use sticky notes or markers to write down short phrases or keywords that capture what the persona says, thinks, does, and feels.

Insights

Insights are key findings or learnings that emerge from analysing the data in each quadrant. In practice, they help UX practitioners better understand why the persona behaves or feels a certain way. To generate insights, UX practitioners should look for patterns, themes, contradictions, or surprises in each quadrant.

They should also ask questions, such as:

  • What does this data tell us about the persona?
  • What are their underlying motivations or beliefs?
  • What are their pain points or challenges?
  • What are their opportunities or desires?
  • How do they differ from other personas or segments?

Note: Insights should be written down as statements that summarise or interpret what was observed or heard.

Needs

Needs are problems or goals that the persona wants to solve or achieve. Learning about needs will help UX practitioners define what value they can provide to the persona.

To identify needs, UX practitioners should look for gaps or opportunities in each quadrant. They should also ask questions, such as:

  • What does this persona need to do or have?
  • What are their expectations or requirements?
  • What are their frustrations or obstacles?
  • How can we help them overcome or avoid them?
  • How can we delight them or exceed their expectations?

Needs should be written down as statements that express what the persona wants or expects from a product or service.

How to create an empathy map?

Creating an empathy map is a collaborative process that involves several steps:

1. Identify your personas

To create an empathy map, start by identifying the personas or user groups you want to understand better. These personas represent the archetypal users who will interact with your product or service. Next, develop a clear understanding of their demographic information, goals, motivations, and pain points.

2. Conduct user research

User research is a critical step in empathy mapping. Engage in qualitative research methods such as interviews, surveys, and observations to gather insights directly from your target users. Understand their needs, frustrations, and desires to gain a comprehensive understanding of their experiences.

3. Enlist empathy map questions

The third step is to enlist questions that will guide you in filling out each quadrant of your empathy map. You can use generic questions, such as:

  • What does this persona say during an interview or a usability test?
  • What does this persona think about their problem or goal?
  • What does this persona do when they use our product or service?
  • How does this persona feel about their experience?

Or you can use more specific questions based on your research objectives, such as:

  • What does this persona say about our competitors?
  • What does this persona think about our value proposition?
  • What does this persona do when they encounter an error message?
  • How does this persona feel when they complete a task?

Write these questions down on sticky notes or markers and place them in each quadrant of your empathy map.

4. Fill in the empathy map

empathy map

Once you have gathered the research data and insights from user interviews, surveys, or observations, it’s time to fill in each section of the empathy map. Here is a clear step-by-step guide to help you through the process:

a. Says:

    • Review the direct quotes, statements, or feedback collected during user research.
    • Identify the most relevant and representative quotes that capture the users’ perspectives.
    • Write these quotes or statements in the “Says” section of the empathy map.
    • Use sticky notes or a digital tool to organise and arrange the quotes.

b. Thinks:

    • Analyse the data and observations to understand the underlying thoughts, motivations, goals, and concerns of the users.
    • Identify recurring themes or patterns related to their thoughts and mindset.
    • Write down the key thoughts or internal dialogues of the users in the “Thinks” section of the empathy map.
    • Use concise phrases or keywords to capture the essence of their thoughts.

c. Feels:

    • Reflect on the emotional experiences expressed or observed during user research.
    • Identify the range of emotions that users go through during their journey.
    • Write down the emotions users feel in the “Feels” section of the empathy map.
    • Be specific and descriptive to capture the nuances of their emotional states.

d. Does:

    • Consider the actions, behaviours, and interactions observed or reported by the users.
    • Identify the key behaviours and actions that users take while engaging with the product or service.
    • Write down these behaviours in the “Does” section of the empathy map.
    • Use action-oriented language to describe what users do and how they interact.

Remember, an empathy map is a collaborative tool. So, ensure that the design team, stakeholders, and even users themselves are involved in filling in the map collaboratively. Having diverse perspectives and insights will help create a comprehensive and accurate representation.

5. Analyse and Interpret

The fifth step is to analyse and interpret your empathy map by generating insights and identifying needs. You can utilise sticky notes or markers to write statements summarising or explaining what you learned from each quadrant.

Look out for patterns, themes, contradictions, surprises, etc. and also ask questions such as why, how, so what, etc., to gain a better understanding of your persona’s perspective.

Tips for creating an empathy map

Here are five tips for helping you create a better empathy map:

  1. Include diverse stakeholders: Gathering perspectives from a wide variety of team members and stakeholders will create a more well-rounded understanding of the target audience.
  2. Use visual aids: Using images and visual aids will help team members remember the process and what needs to be included.
  3. Iterate and refine: As mentioned before, empathy maps are static and require regular revisits and updates as new insights emerge. This iterative process ensures that the design remains aligned with evolving user needs.
  4. Digital templates: Use digital tools and templates for remote collaboration and to create a centralised database of user insights. This will facilitate easier sharing and improved accessibility for teammates.

Link to personas: Connecting empathy maps to the creation of user personas will provide easier access to insights and facilitate the development of rich and realistic user personas.

Conclusion

Empathy mapping is an invaluable technique in UX design that allows UX practitioners to deeply understand users and create more human-centred experiences.

By cultivating empathy, UX practitioners can bridge the gap between user expectations and design solutions, gaining valuable insights into user needs, emotions, and behaviours— leading to more impactful and successful designs.

Reach out to us at Netizen Experience for creating empathy maps for your next project!

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