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Empathy Mapping

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Visualizing user attitudes and behaviors in an empathy map helps UX teams align on a deep understanding of end users. The mapping process also reveals any holes in existing user data. An empathy map is a simple, easy-to-digest visual that captures knowledge about a user’s behaviors and attitudes.

As UX professionals, it is our job to advocate on behalf of the user. However, in order to do it, not only must we deeply understand our users, but we must also help our colleagues understand them and prioritize their needs. Empathy maps, widely used throughout agile and design communities, are a powerful, fundamental tool for accomplishing both.

Definition: An empathy map is a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) aid in decision making.

It is a useful tool to helps teams better understand their users. Empathy mapping is a simple workshop activity that can be done with stakeholders, marketing and sales, product development, or creative teams to build empathy for end users. For teams involved in the design and engineering of products, services, or experiences, an empathy mapping session is a great exercise for groups to “get inside the heads” of users.

Creating an effective solution requires understanding the true problem and the person who is experiencing it. The exercise of creating the map helps participants consider things from the user’s perspective along with his or her goals and challenges.

Empathy maps are most useful at the beginning of the design process after user research but before requirements and concepting. The mapping process can help synthesize research observations and reveal deeper insights about a user’s needs. (The maps are most effective when based on research data, but like provisional personas, can be built using knowledge from internal participants or using existing personas.) It can help guide the construction of personas or serve as a bridge between personas and concept deliverables.

When included in early project stages, the exercise helps teams enter the user’s world and approach things from his or her point of view before creating solutions—whether it’s ideas for content, a webpage design, app prototype, or new service offering. The benefits include:

  • Better understanding of the user
  • Distilled information in one visual reference
  • Callouts of key insights from research
  • Fast and inexpensive
  • Easily customizable based on available information and goals
  • Common understanding among teams

The maps can also be used throughout the design process and revised as new data becomes available. A sparsely populated map or a session that reveals more questions than answers indicates where more user research needs to be done.

Format

Traditional empathy maps are split into 4 quadrants (SaysThinksDoes, and Feels), with the user or persona in the middle. Empathy maps provide a glance into who a user is as a whole and are not chronological or sequential.

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The Says quadrant contains what the user says out loud in an interview or some other usability study. Ideally, it contains verbatim and direct quotes from research.

  • “I am allegiant to Delta because I never have a bad experience.”
  • “I want something reliable.”
  • “I don’t understand what to do from here.”

The Thinks quadrant captures what the user is thinking throughout the experience. Ask yourself (from the qualitative research gathered): what occupies the user’s thoughts? What matters to the user? It is possible to have the same content in both Says and Thinks. However, pay special attention to what users think, but may not be willing to vocalize. Try to understand why they are reluctant to share — are they unsure, self-conscious, polite, or afraid to tell others something?

  • “This is really annoying.”
  • “Am I dumb for not understanding this?”

The Does quadrant encloses the actions the user takes. From the research, what does the user physically do? How does the user go about doing it?

  • Refreshes page several times.
  • Shops around to compare prices.

The Feels quadrant is the user’s emotional state, often represented as an adjective plus a short sentence for context. Ask yourself: what worries the user? What does the user get excited about? How does the user feel about the experience?

  • Impatient: pages load too slowly
  • Confused: too many contradictory prices
  • Worried: they are doing something wrong

Our users are complex humans. It is natural (and extremely beneficial) to see juxtaposition between quadrants. You will also encounter inconsistencies — for example, seemingly positive actions but negative quotes or emotions coming from the same user.  This is when empathy maps become treasure maps that can uncover nuggets of understanding about our user. It is our job as UX professionals to investigate the cause of the conflict and resolve it.

Some of these quadrants may seem ambiguous or overlapping — for example, it may be difficult to distinguish between Thinks and Feels. Do not focus too much on being precise: if an item may fit into multiple quadrants, just pick one. The 4 quadrants exist only to push our knowledge about users and to ensure we don’t leave out any important dimension. (If you don’t have anything to put into a certain quadrant, it’s a strong signal that you need more user research before proceeding in the design process.)

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How to Empathy Map

A 5-step process for creating empathy maps that describe user characteristics at the start of a UX design process.

Resources