Empathy maps get you inside a user's head

By RocketAir Crew
December 3, 2019

A deeper understanding.

If you’ve ever had a small child make you a drawing, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to make heads or tails of it. You may recognize a couple of marks that could be eyes, a little swoosh that could be a smile, and four angled lines that you assume are limbs. But unless you’re a supreme asshole, you don’t care that you can’t really tell what it is the little kid drew for you. You’re just happy to have this adorable picture to hang on your refrigerator, and you thank the kid for giving you the most beautiful picture you’ve ever received and tell the parents they’ve got a little Picasso in the making.

However, if you then innocently ask the kid what the picture is supposed to be, sometimes what you’ll get is a disappointed sigh. What are you, stupid? she seems to be thinking. It’s a dog, or it’s a cat, or it’s YOU she’ll say, unable to comprehend how you couldn’t see what it’s supposed to be when it’s so obvious what it’s supposed to be. And you tell her, of course that’s what it is! I was just kidding!

The difference in how you reacted to the child’s drawing and how she reacted toward you’re question about her drawing is that you showed empathy toward the fact that she’s just a kid and—again, unless you’re a supreme asshole—you’re not supposed to expect a masterpiece from a small child’s drawing. The child, on the other hand, hasn’t yet developed the necessary psychological tools one is supposed to develop as they get older that allows you to show empathy toward someone who might look at a drawing and not quite make out that it’s supposed to be a cat.

Now, we trust that as professional UX designers you’re not going to build a product that is so hard to understand that the website or app comes off looking like a young person’s crude drawing of an animal. But unlike the little girl who can’t understand your confusion over the image that she just drew for you when it’s very clear to her, it’s important that you know exactly what your users actually want to see in the product you’re designing for them before you actually build it for them.

To put it another way: Don’t assume your users wanted you to draw them a picture of a cat without first knowing whether they may actually be dog people instead.

Map it out

One reason user research has become an increasingly crucial part of the UX design process is because it’s not easy to know what users need out of the product unless you ask them. And so, researchers can provide a design team a better understanding of the intended audience.

“As researchers, when we experience a user’s struggle first-hand, feel the frustration, and hear their words, we can’t help but empathize,” writes Jennifer Leigh Brown, a columnist at UX Booth. “But behind every UX’er is a team, a client, or a company CEO that wasn’t there. They don’t understand the users wants and needs.”

A great way to incorporate user research into the product design process is to create an empathy map, which is essentially whiteboarding the user feedback so that you can visualize the intended audience and its needs. (It can also be done on a large sheet of paper and not a literal whiteboard). Brown notes:


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.


The idea for an empathy map first came from Dave Gray, founder of XPLANE (a “visual thinking” company) and the author of Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers. Gray’s map, originally called The Big Head Exercise was created to help “teams develop deep, shared understanding and empathy for other people,” and has been used for a broad range of tasks that require consideration for the behaviors and feelings of others.

The map wasn’t created for any specific industry, but it “was created with a pretty specific set of ideas and is designed as a framework to complement an exercise in developing empathy,” according to Gray. And as people in various industries created their own versions of an empathy map, “a lot of the thinking has gotten lost in translation over the years, and the various versions that have proliferated across the web have somewhat degraded the original concept,” Gray noted.

And so, a couple of years ago, Gray created an updated version of his empathy map, using some ideas he learned from working with Alex Osterwalder, founder of the Business Model Canvas. This new map can be seen below and printed out here.

As you can see in Gray’s canvas, the map starts with a GOAL and lays out what he calls the “WHODO” process: Who you’re seeking to empathize with and what they need to do, including what tasks they need to accomplish and what they need to do differently. Central to the mapping process are what’s inside the big head: Your audience’s pains (fears, frustrations and anxieties) and their gains (their wants, needs, hopes and dreams).

You, of course, can take Gray’s canvas and create your own empathy map that is more directly focused on the UX design process – and geared toward the specific product your team is working on. But both Brown and Nick Babich, a software developer and editor-in-chief of UX Planet, believe you should whiteboard your empathy map at the beginning of your design process, before you’ve actually begun working on the product.

“Ideally, they should be created right after initial user research is done,” Babich explains. “In that case, they’ll have a substantial impact on product requirements and help product teams develop a meaningful value proposition.”

Babich adds that the empathy map “forces product teams to shift focus from the product they want to build, to the people who will use this product,” and once the team identifies “what they know about the user and places this information on a chart, they gain a more holistic view of the user’s world and his or her problems, or opportunity space.”

As for an empathy map that is actually focused on the UX design process, Babich points to a model developed by designer Paul Boag.

Boag’s empathy map includes some of the key elements from Gray’s original model – the overall goal, pain points and the tasks that are looking to be accomplished. But Boag’s map is obviously focused specifically on the users of the product you’re designing, which is why your team will also consider the feelings of the user (i.e. the user experience) and the outside influences that could impact their behaviors.

There is no "i" in team

Babich notes that product design “is a team sport” and that everyone on your team should be involved in an empathy mapping session. He also suggests bringing in an experienced moderator to lead the session, “asking questions that will make team members brainstorm user characteristics.”

Your empathy map should focus on a single persona (which is actually a group of users who share similar characteristics) and the goal the users are seeking to achieve. By defining the persona that you are mapping for, you’re creating context for the session “to make sure the team understands and empathizes with the subject’s situation,” according to Babich.

Once you’ve put context around the persona, your team can start brainstorming the key characteristics by answering questions about the users, Babich adds. He suggests that each team member should write his or her responses on a post-it note that is then stuck inside the proper quadrant on the map.

“It’s essential to have the team members talk about their sticky notes as they place them on the empathy map,” Babich explains. “By asking questions, it’s possible to reach more profound insights—such as why team members really think the way they do—which can be valuable for the rest of the team.”

One of the drawbacks that Boag has found to empathy mapping is that while participants would glean a better understanding of the user, “this understanding didn't seem to stick or influenced the wider organisation.” In other words, the impact was short-lived and didn’t change the culture of a design firm that doesn’t value user research.

And so, Boag decided to turn the empathy maps into posters that can be hung around a firm.

“This helps to ensure the user remains in people’s minds as they work,” Boag explains.

Making an effort to get inside the heads of your users to better understand their needs and their frustrations will only help improve the final product. After all, by creating an empathy map before you actually start the design process, it pushes you and your team to think about the product from the perspective of the people who will actually be using it.