Design Thinking: Empathy Maps / by Gavin Lau

Empathy Maps help to rapidly put your team in the user’s shoes and align on pains and gains — whether at the beginning of a project or mid-stream when you need to re-focus on your user.

Empathy Map is a tool that helps designers empathize with the people for which they are designing a solution. With empathetic mapping the designer/developer put themselves in the position of the user. Empathy Maps can also be used to test a prototype design or in activities such as role playing to help better understand the needs of the user.

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. — Daniel Goleman


What is Empathy ?

Empathy is defined as ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’ or ‘seeing through the eyes of another’. Empathizing with another person is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives. In design, it may be defined as; identify with others and adopt their perspective. Empathy is different than sympathy as empathy does not necessarily imply compassion. Empathy can also be described as a respectful understanding of other people’s point of view.


Why Empathize ?

Empathy is a core skill for designers to design successfully for other people. Empathy is needed for business success and for designs to be accepted and used by those which they have been designed. Most importantly, empathy builds trust.

How to Build an Empathy Map

  1. Draw the map and its four quadrants: Says, Does, Thinks, and Feels.
  2. Sketch your user in the center and give them a name and a bit of description about who they are or what they do.
  3. Diverge, With each team member writing one observation per sticky note and applying it to the appropriate quadrant of the map.
  4. Annotate unknowns (assumptions and questions) for later inquiry or validation.
  5. Discuss observations and fill in gaps collaboratively.
When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems. — Stephen Covey


Hot Tips

  • Don’t do it alone. Empathy for users arises from sharing in the collaborative making of the Empathy Map. Everyone knows something about your user, so use the activity as a means to gather, socialize, and synthesize that information together.
  • Involve your users. Share your empathy maps with your users to validate or invalidate your observations and assumptions. Better yet, invite them to co-create the artifact with your team.
  • Go beyond the job title. Rather than focusing on your user’s “job title,” consider their actual tasks, motivations, goals, and obstacles.