Understanding your customer using empathy mapping

We discuss the role of empathy in designing exceptional user experiences.
Written by
Nichola Hudson
Published on
September 30, 2019
Understanding your customer using empathy mapping

As a digital customer experience agency, we've been creating empathy maps and customer experience maps for some time now. In the ever-changing consumer behaviour and market landscape, we are seeing that our customers’ main deciding factor when choosing products and services is the quality of their experience with them.

In order for us to create meaningful and quality customer experiences, we need to deeply understand our customers, the people we are designing for. We need to understand their influences, thoughts, emotions and motivations, and prioritise their needs. Only then, we are able to create a connection with our customers, build their trust and loyalty over time. And the core skill helping us to win hearts and minds is empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the reasoning and motivation behind someone’s behaviour and feelings.

As humans, we usually approach new challenges with personal bias — and no team is an exception to this. If you don’t empathise with your customer, you’ll create a solution with bias built in. For instance, if you’re a tech company, your team will have a deeper technological understanding than the average user, and they might build a solution that requires advanced technical knowledge, assuming that your customers have more technological expertise than they actually do.

By placing yourself in your customer’s position as if you were ‘walking in their shoes’, you can better understand their mindset and their experience of your product or service. This understanding will help you to diagnose your current offering and come up with new solutions that resonate with your customers and address their needs.

What is an empathy map and why create one?

An empathy map is a simple visual that captures knowledge about a customer’s behaviours and attitudes. It was originally created by Dave Gray and has been widely used throughout agile and design communities as a powerful, fundamental tool to gain a deeper insight into their customers.

Similar to a user persona, an empathy map visualises customer needs, condense customer data into a brief chart, and helps you consider what customers want -- not what you think they want.

When to use an empathy map?

Empathy maps are most useful at the beginning of the design process and they are most effective when based on real research data like customer interviews. They can be created during a workshop where participants from the various departments of an organisation, including marketing and sales teams, account managers, product development, creative teams and other stakeholders, use the research data in combination with their existing customer knowledge to build empathy for end users. It is a great exercise for groups to ‘get inside the heads’ of users.

The benefits of empathy mapping include:

  • Shed light on which problems to solve, and how
  • Evaluate new ideas and guide us towards meaningful innovation
  • Remove bias from the team's approach
  • Quickly visualise user needs and uncover areas where more research is needed
  • Align cross-functional teams on a common, shared understanding of the user and help them work together more effectively

The maps can also be used throughout the design process and revised as new data becomes available. A map that is sparsely populated indicates where more user research needs to be done.

Empathy mapping is not a replacement to customer journey mapping, but a faster and simpler way to create a focused view of what users are thinking and feeling, and easier to read at a glance. The final map is a visual that people can refer to and a nice reminder about what users are thinking and feeling.

How to create one? Elements of a good Empathy map

‘Getting in the head of your user’.

Empathy maps can vary in shapes and sizes based on needs and preferences, but they have common core elements.

Having the user at the centre, a common empathy map is divided into sections or quadrants. Each section is labelled with a category that explores the user’s external, observable world, and internalmindset:

  • What does the user DO?
  • What does the user SEE?
  • What does the user HEAR?
  • What does the user THINK?
  • What does the user FEEL?
  • What are the user’s PAIN POINTS?
  • What does the user want to GAIN?
Photograph of empathy map
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Photo credit: ‘Updated Empathy Map Canvas’ – Dave Gray

Dave Gray, Xplaner founder and empathy map creator, originally called it ‘The Big Head Exercise’.

Starting at the top and working clockwise:

Step 1: Establish focus and goals

WHO is the person for the map?

This is the person you want to understand and empathise with. Summarise who they are, their situation and role. If you have multiple personas, you’d need to create a map for each one.

What is the user’s ultimate GOAL?

What are they trying to achieve? What does success look like? For example, what do they need to do differently to decide?

By answering this question helps focus participants and set context for the activity.

Step 2: Capture the outside world

Focus on the observable activities in the user’s world, examining their experience and trying to imagine what is like to be them.

What does the user SEE?

What does the user see in their immediate environment that could influence them? What are they watching, or reading? What do they encounter in their daily experiences? What are other people around them doing?

Consider what your competition is doing or what other products and services compete for your customer’s attention. Don’t assume that your company or product is at the top of their list. Even if, for example, your email offer is fantastic, so are the other 200 in their inbox.

What do they SAY?

What is their attitude and what do they say?

This may depend on where they are, in a private versus a public setting, and who they are with.

What do they DO?

What can we imagine them doing?

Consider any distractions they might have during their main activities.

What do they HEAR?

What is the user hearing and how is it influencing them?

Consider personal connections with family, friends, and co-workers along with what other people are saying that can impact their thinking.

Step 3: Explore inside the mind

What do they THINK and FEEL?

What matters to the user that makes them think about it?

Consider positive and negative sides of thoughts. What makes them feel good or bad? What do they worry about? How do they feel? Stressed? Anxious? Excited?

What are their PAINS?

Explore the user’s potential pain points. What does failure look like? Capture frustrations and challenges, the obstacles that stand in their way.

What are their GAINS?

Explore the user’s potential gains. What does success look like? What wants, needs, hopes and dreams do they have? What are they trying to achieve?

Once all the sections are complete, take a moment to reflect and share thoughts on the experience among your team members. Ask how it changed their perspectives or if it produced new insights. Capture conclusions and ideas, take pictures, or create a new electronic version for sharing online.

Photograph of adapting empathy mapping exercise
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Photo credit: ‘Empathy Mapping: The First Step in Design Thinking’ – NNGroup

Useful tips for an effective empathy mapping workshop

Don't worry too much about putting things in the 'right' section/quadrant

For example: ‘Is that a pain or a feeling? Did the user see it or hear it?’ There will be overlaps between what our users see and hear. The goal isn’t to correctly classify information, but to empathise with the user.

Focus on what matters most

Avoid going too broad and focus on what matters most about the user’s perceptions related to a specific project goal. The main purpose of this activity is not about logging every emotional and behavioural aspect of the user, but to focusing on the target audience and understanding their world as it relates to your work.

Adapt the map to your specific needs and situation

Change the segments/sections of the map to work with the session goal, persona or available research data. Adapt and simplify the process to ensure the outcome is useful in informing future deliverables.

Empathy mapping is a useful tool that helps to put the user at the centre of your internal teams' mind. Used alongside other mapping methods such as customer journey mapping and customer experience mapping, can help to create an in-depth understanding of your users and organisation and shift the company's culture and mindset towards providing a better and more customer-focused experience.

Photograph of adapting empathy maps for UX design
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Photo credit: ‘Adapting empathy maps for UX design’ - Paul Boag

If your think your organisation would benefit from an empathy mapping workshop, led by one of the experienced folks at Distinction, please get in touch.


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