Empathy map

Empathy map

Empathy map

No amount of training or expertise tells us what is going on in users’ heads. We can research, observe, ask (a simple empathy map is also useful for that), and craft a hypothesis. And when we take the time to better understand our users, we can empathize. Empathy mapping can help with that; while an empathy mapping session won’t alter a company culture that doesn’t value user research, it can help focus participants on users by putting them “in their shoes” when interacting with a product or service.

Empathy mapping isn’t a replacement for customer journey maps, but it is a faster and simpler way to create a focused view of what users are thinking and feeling. While both maps are built from a customer’s point of view, journey maps are a visualization of the entire experience and outline everything a user does, encounters, thinks, and feels interacting with a brand across touchpoints. Empathy maps provide a focused view of a target persona and not an wide enough vision for designing an entire user experience.



Understanding the different aspects of the person(s) you are engaging with.

Source / credits

Empathy Map elements

Empathy maps vary in formats, but they have common core elements. A large sheet of paper (or whiteboard sketch) is divided into sections with the user at the center. The representation of the user is often a large empty head (Dave Gray, Xplaner founder and empathy map creator, originally called it the Big Head Exercise – I guess Empathy Map is better indeed).

Around the user at the center, the sheet is divided into sections or quadrants. Each section is labeled with a category that explores the user’s external, observable world, and internal mindset: what the user is doing, seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling (including pains and gains) – at total of 8 elements:

The 8 Empathy Map elements: Establish Focus and Goals


Who is the person for the map? This is the user who you want to understand and empathize with. Summarize his or her situation and role. If you have multiple personas, each one will need their own map.

Need to do?

What is the desired outcome? Or: What do we want the user to do? This is what you hope the user will do. What does success look like? For example, what does he or she need to do differently or decide? While the exercise is about building empathy and not selling or designing anything, answering this question helps focus participants and set context for the activity.

The 8 Empathy Map elements: Capture the Outside World

Say? and Do?

What does the user SAY? What are her behaviors and how does she conduct herself? What is her attitude and what does she say? This may change depending on where she is, who she is with, or is nearby. Attitude can be actions towards others or how she conveys something. If applicable, note how her behavior has changed recently or changes in a public versus private settings. For example, she used to constantly post on Facebook until she told everyone that it was evil. Now she secretly uses it and stalks but doesn’t post.


What is she encountering in her daily experiences? These could be people, their activities, or things. What are the people around her doing? What is she watching, reading, and exposed to in her environment or the marketplace that could influence her? Consider alternative products and services or something the competition is doing. Remember this is her world, not yours, so don’t assume that your company or product is commanding her attention. Even if your email newsletter is fantastic so are the other 20 in her inbox.


What is the user hearing and how is it influencing her? Consider personal connections with family, friends, and coworkers along wth what is being said in the media by bloggers, social media influencers, and experts in fields. Focus on things that impact her thinking—not superfluous information streams. Influencers should focus on the people, things, or places that influence how the user acts. Skip the Beyoncé chatter.

The 8 Empathy Map elements: Think and feel?

Pain? and Gain?

What matters to the user that she is thinking about it? Consider positive and negative sides of thoughts. What makes her feel good or bad? What does she worry about or what keeps her up at night? Her mind is exploring paths and possibilities as she considers doing or trying something. How does she feel? Frightened? Excited? Anxious?

Next, explore the specifics of her pains and gains. What does success and failure look like? Capture frustrations and challenges, the obstacles that stand in her way. What goals and dreams does she have? Gains are what she aspires to achieve or have.

... all to prepare for the key exercise

Distilling needs

The Empathy Map will help to distill user needs which -in turn- will help you tackle the customer challenge. Needs are verbs, i.e. activities and desires. Needs are not nouns (the name of some specific thing or set of things, such as living creatures, objects, places, actions, qualities, states of existence, or ideas), which will instead lead you to define solutions.

Try to identify needs directly from the user traits you noted. Identify needs based on contradictions between two traits, such as a disconnection between what a user says and what the user does. There are multiple ways to do so, of which Maslow’s Pyramid or Pinto’s Pyramid can help you define which needs your user is primarily focused on fulfilling. Start reflecting on how your product or service can help fulfill some of those needs.

Distilling insights

When you have needs, you can make the step towards insights, remarkable realizations that can help you to solve the current design challenge you’re facing. This in contrast -obviously- to unremarkable realizations – read my post on banned insights for that. In order to do that, look to synthesize major insights, especially from contradictions between two user attributes. It can be found within one quadrant or in two different quadrants. You can also synthesize insights by asking yourself: “Why?” when you notice strange, tense, or surprising behavior.

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