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How to use an Empathy Map to Create Better Digital Products and Services

How to use an Empathy Map to Create Better Digital Products and Services

  • Product Definition /
  • Product Design /
  • Product Strategy /

Jonathon Hensley

Companies that create exceptional customer experiences (CX) stand out from the competition. Great customer experiences create value for both customers and the business. It’s a focus on building a win/win relationship. 

Empathy mapping can be an invaluable tool to help you focus on the right things: Shifting your teams into a customer-centric mindset, identifying what it will take to meet the needs of your target audience, and creating solutions with higher value and stronger impact.  

Today your digital products and services are central to the customer experience. Websites are increasingly becoming more than an entry point. They are a critical tool for delivering on a business’ brand promise. Mobile apps in some cases are the product(s).  In other scenarios, mobile apps may be an extension of an existing product or service, offering increased value (experience) of engaging with that organization. It could be a digital product or service focused on sales enablement, product delivery, customer service, etc… 

To accomplish this, you need to understand your audience. This understanding is an essential foundation for creating, delivering, and managing the customer experience. It  may very well determine if your product or service is successful. 

What is Empathy?

Before we dive into the details of what Empathy Mapping is let’s talk about what empathy means. 

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. 

The ability to develop empathy is at the very foundation of design thinking, and the disciplines focused on customer experience (a.k.a. User Experience) design. It is essential for developing a deeper understanding of your audiences, and how you can create the best solutions to meet their needs.  

When you create or work to improve a digital product, it is essential to remember that being empathetic requires us to withhold from making assumptions, to discard biases, and actively engage with your audiences.   When we do this, we are able to cultivate an understanding of someone else’s situation and how they’re feeling. We are able to then respond appropriately to their unique situation. 

What is an Empathy Map?

Empathy Mapping is a collaborative process used to visualize and articulate what an organization knows about a particular audience.  It externalizes knowledge about a specific audience in order to create a shared understanding of their needs, what they are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing and doing. 

It is effective in guiding teams into a customer-centric mindset. It also facilitates a focused development of more impactful solutions, and aids in decision making. 

The empathy-mapping process helps distill and categorize your knowledge of the audience into one place. 

It can be used to:

  • Categorize and make sense of qualitative research such as research notes, survey answers, user-interview transcripts, etc. 

  • Discover gaps in your current knowledge and identify the types of research needed to address it. A sparse empathy map indicates that more research needs to be done.

  • Create personas by aligning and grouping empathy maps covering individual users.

When Should I use Empathy Mapping?

Empathy mapping is a tool that can be used to better understand and empathize with the perspectives, experiences, and emotions of others. Here are three different use cases for empathy mapping:

  1. Developing User-Centered Products and Services
    One of the primary use cases for empathy mapping is in the development of user-centered products and services. By using empathy mapping techniques, designers and product developers can gain a deeper understanding of their target audience and the problems they are trying to solve. This can help them to create products and services that meet the needs of users in a more effective and efficient manner.

    For example, a team of designers might use empathy mapping to better understand the needs and frustrations of patients with chronic illnesses. By mapping out the different aspects of the patient’s experience, such as their physical symptoms, emotional state, and interactions with healthcare providers, the team can identify areas where their product or service could make a meaningful impact. This could lead to the development of a new app or tool that helps patients track their symptoms, communicate with their doctors, or manage their medications more effectively.

  2. Improving Customer Experience
    Another use case for empathy mapping is in the field of customer experience. Companies that prioritize customer experience are more likely to build strong relationships with their customers, improve customer loyalty, and ultimately increase their revenue. Empathy mapping can help companies better understand their customers’ needs, desires, and pain points, which can inform their customer service strategies and product development efforts.

    For instance, a company might use empathy mapping to better understand the experience of their customers when they visit their physical store or interact with their customer service team. This could involve mapping out the customer’s journey, from the moment they enter the store or call the customer service line to the point where they leave with a product or solution. By identifying pain points and areas of frustration, the company can make changes to their processes or training to improve the customer experience.

  3. Improving Team Dynamics
    Empathy mapping can also be used to improve team dynamics and collaboration. When teams are able to empathize with one another, they are better able to work together effectively and achieve their goals. Empathy mapping can help teams to identify the different perspectives and experiences of team members, which can help to build trust and improve communication.

    For example, a team of developers might use empathy mapping to better understand the perspectives of their colleagues in marketing or design. By mapping out the different aspects of their colleagues’ experiences, such as their goals, priorities, and challenges, the developers can gain a better understanding of how their work fits into the bigger picture. This can help to improve collaboration, communication, and ultimately, the success of the project.

Empathy mapping is a powerful tool that can be used in a variety of contexts, from product development to customer service to team dynamics. By using empathy mapping techniques, individuals and teams can gain a deeper understanding of the perspectives, experiences, and emotions of others. This can help to improve the effectiveness of products and services, enhance customer experience, and build stronger relationships between team members.

How Well Do You Know Your Customers?

It’s time to step into your customers’ shoes to understand things from their perspective. When interacting with your digital product you need to know these 5 areas of focus:

  1. What an audience type’s respective ultimate goal is in regards to your digital product or service?
  2. What are the tasks they perform that bring them closer to this goal?
  3. How are they feeling going about these tasks (both positive & negative)?
  4. What are the pain points they experience along the way?
  5. What are their influences during this situation? Who are they turning to for information?

For inspiration, here are the questions we asked while creating the empathy maps for our Utilizing Empathy Mapping during Covid-19 white paper:

  • What are your daily tasks at work and at home?
  • What does a typical day look like during the pandemic?
  • What are your daily and weekly goals?
  • What are the biggest barriers to accomplishing your tasks?
  • What’s happening in your work and home environments right now?
  • What are your interactions like?
  • What are people saying?
  • Who is influencing you?
  • Where do you get your information about the pandemic?
  • Where do you look for inspiration?
  • What are your biggest frustrations about this situation?
  • Biggest concerns/fears?
  • What would make things easier?

Using Empathy Mapping to Guide Interviews

When your team is aligned on the right customers to research and current knowledge has been externalized, below are some considerations to keep in mind for hosting successful interviews:

  • Keep the interview to 30-45 minutes.
  • Before the interview day, and also at the start of the actual interview, explain the reason for the interview, and how the data from it will be used.
  • Make the user feel as comfortable as possible. Interviews should be one-on-one. Conduct the interview in person if possible, video and phone work as well.
  • Make the interviewee feel heard by taking notes, nodding, or making frequent eye contact. If you record the interview make sure you have their permission first.
  • Start with a simple question, one that allows you to ease into the interview. Try and connect with them and get to know a little more about them.
  • Use only open ended questions. Stay away from “yes” or “no” answer questions as they won’t provide enough information about your customer and allow you to collect the details.
  • Let the interviewee finish their thoughts. Do not interrupt them.
  • Show empathy by asking the interviewee to elaborate: “You couldn’t get a straight answer? How did that make you feel?”

7 Elements of an Empathy Map Canvas 

There are several formats of Empathy Maps. The Empathy Map Canvas is a great format for product teams, as it delves deeper into the context of the target audience and their situation. This version was produced by Dave Gray in collaboration with Alex Osterwalder, designer of the business model canvas. 

To download the template click here. 

This version goes beyond the traditional format that is split into 4 quadrants to help to articulate and communicate key information the rest of the team can benefit from. This format also prompts a deeper conversation that helps build a common language and understanding

Here are the 7 quadrants that make up the Empathy Map Canvas and questions. Each area helps to create a deeper understanding to illustrate the target audience persona. 

  1. Who are we empathizing with?
    • Who is the person we want to understand?
    • What is the situation they are in?
    • What is their role in the situation?
  2. What do they need to do?
    • What do they need to do differently?
    • What job(s) do they want or need to get done?
    • What decisions(s) do they need to make?
    • How will we know they were successful? 
  3. What do they see?
    • What do they see in the marketplace?
    • What do they see in their immediate environment?
    • What do they see others saying and doing?
    • What are they watching and reading?
  4. What do they say?
    • What have we heard them say?
    • What can we imagine them saying?
  5. What do they do?
    • What do they do today?
    • What behavior have we observed?
    • What can we imagine them doing?
  6. What do they hear? 
    • What are they hearing others say?
    • What are they hearing from friends?
    • What are they hearing from colleagues?
    • What are they hearing second hand?
  7. What do they think and feel?
    • Pains – What are their fears, frustrations, and anxieties?
    • Gains – What are their wants, needs, hopes, and dreams?

The process is as valuable as the visualization of your empathy map. It provides invaluable texture to your target audience personas and how to think about their entire user journey.  

How to Create an Empathy Map That Improves Your Customer Experience

1) Don’t empathize with just your ideal audience

One of the most common mistakes when developing audience personas is  only focusing on the ideal customer/user. While this individual is important, they rarely capture the full depth and nuance of your target market, the different contexts and varying situations that they’re living. 

Think back to the last time you were on an airplane. What was the context of your situation? Were you traveling for work? Was it to go on vacation? Maybe it was to get home before your son or daughter was born. Maybe it was to see a loved one for the last time. Now imagine how that might have felt if the gate agent was rude? Or you had a connection to make and your flight was two hours delayed? What would you be thinking, feeling, and doing in that moment?

We are all impacted by the context of a situation in very different ways at different times in our lives. As we create experiences, it’s important that we don’t look at just the ideal scenarios but design solutions, experiences, products, and services with a broader, deeper understanding. The job your product might require it. 

2) Unlock insights from new and existing research  

An impactful empathy map is based on real data. You can create your empathy map from user interviews, observational studies, and qualitative surveys. The use of empathy mapping is most common at the beginning of a project within the UX design process. The insights that can come from this exercise can help to inform your strategy, define product or service requirements, prioritize opportunities to address the needs of audiences, and deliver the most value. 

A second often-missed opportunity is  conducting the empathy mapping exercise for your existing digital product or service. It can  unlock new insights, opportunities, and challenges that determine your roadmap going forward. Empathy maps can also be a great way to get a deeper understanding of what an organization thinks they know vs. what they don’t know about an audience. When applied in this way, you can conduct a gap analysis to highlight where additional research and conversations with customers could be invaluable. 

3) Encourage cross-functional team participation 

You and your team  may be responsible for creating the product (solution) but who’s responsible for selling, delivering, and supporting it? Empathy mapping is a great tool for bringing teams together. This cross-functional collaboration helps to reveal  team members’ thinking, and their understanding of a persona. Another big benefit of this approach is that it often pulls together insights that can get siloed within a specific stage of the customer journey and the teams that support them at that point. By incorporating a cross-functional approach you are able to obtain a 360-degree view of each persona.  

Each team participant should write their responses on post-it notes and stick them to the map as well. The discussions that evolve from people sharing and talking through their sticky notes as they place them on the Empathy Map is an invaluable part of this process.  This creates a collaborative space where people ask questions, and identify patterns, and you can start grouping of similar attributes. This assists in improving the process, and the results of mapping. At the end of an empathy mapping session, ask them what new insights they learned that will help them during product development or what assumptions they have about the users they’d like to validate. 

Conducting a Great Workshop Just Takes a Few Considerations

There are two reasons to hold an empathy mapping workshop, first to align a team on your customer, in which case be sure all stakeholders are present during the workshop. Second, to analyze or review interviews transcripts or notes. When you’re ready to start hosting your own workshop, keep these considerations in mind to be primed for success:

  1. When you’re ready to start hosting your own workshop, keep these considerations in mind to be primed for success — and help keep the discussion to 60 minutes.
  2. The optimal group size is between 4 and 8 stakeholders.
  3. The stakeholder group should have representation from a diverse range of company or organization roles.
  4. Choose 2-3 critical audience types to focus on. Remember, the goal is not to get too specific with roles or build detailed personas. Think big picture buckets of people that deserve attention, like “New Customers” vs “Existing Customers”.
  5. Use the diagrams included for each audience type and make sure everyone can see and contribute to it. Start brainstorming tasks, and as you identify a few, pivot to a ‘defining statement’ as the ultimate goal. This statement summarizes what they need from using your digital product, so everyone should agree on it.
  6. From there, have fun! Use a whiteboard, or sticky notes, and make sure everyone gets to have a voice. Be sure to take notes and photos of your progress.

Leveraging Digital Tools for Remote Empathy Mapping

If your team is distributed or your interviewees are not local, you might need to collaborate remotely on empathy mapping. Thankfully, a number of digital tools have emerged that facilitate remote empathy mapping sessions.

Visual collaboration platforms like Miro, Mural and Figma provide virtual whiteboard spaces for teams to jointly create and iterate on empathy maps. Team members can add virtual sticky notes, photos, drawings and templates to capture insights on the various empathy map quadrants. These tools support video conferencing and real-time co-editing so multiple people can contribute simultaneously.

Some key benefits of using these digital empathy mapping tools include:

  • Enabling participation from team members across multiple locations. No need to be physically together.
  • Persistent documentation of the empathy mapping session. The digital whiteboard can be saved for future reference.
  • Ability to revisit and refine the empathy map over time as new insights emerge. The digital format makes it easy to update iteratively.
  • Options to export the final empathy map into various formats like PDF, JPEG, CSV etc. for distribution.
  • Additional features like built-in templates, icons, sticky notes, shapes and more to visualize the empathy map.
  • Some tools like Mural offer pre-made empathy map templates to get started quickly.

With the help of these visually collaborative apps, teams can gain the benefits of empathy mapping regardless of where individual members are located. The digital format enhances documentation while allowing the empathy mapping process to remain highly interactive and engaging.

Some design tools such as Mural include templates for creating an Empathy Map

Integrating Empathy Mapping into Agile and Design Thinking

Many modern digital product teams follow agile or design thinking approaches to development. Empathy mapping can seamlessly integrate with these methodologies.

Here are some tangible ways you can incorporate empathy mapping into your team’s agile or design thinking process:

  • During sprint planning, have each member share 2-3 key insights from their empathy mapping session. Capture these as sprint goals that connect to user needs.
  • Use your empathy maps to identify and frame specific user stories. What user goals and pain points should be addressed in the sprint? Make sure stories capture this context.
  • Let empathy mapping shape your story mapping sessions. Capture insights around user emotions and pain points on your story map.
  • Schedule a mid-sprint empathy mapping session to check if any new insights have emerged. Adjust remaining stories if needed.
  • When prototyping, focus on areas where your empathy maps showed user hesitation or anxiety. Prototype solutions to address these pain points.
  • Have your empathy maps handy during usability testing sessions. Observe if test findings reveal additional user emotions to map.
  • Capture your team’s assumptions around user needs as you empathy map. Prioritize these for validation via research tests.

Blending empathy mapping into your current agile or design thinking rituals provides structure. But also remember empathy mapping is an ongoing practice, not just a phase. Consistently integrate it to amplify your user focus.

Create Better Digital Products and Services

Whether your digital solution is customer facing or internal, empathy mapping can help to align your team, remove biases, unearth a deeper understanding of what drives user behavior, identify new opportunities, and provide a lens to prioritize your efforts. This insight allows you to focus and work  towards having the highest level of impact in the research, planning, experience design and technologies you invest into.

Forward. Digital. Thinking.

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