An empathy map is a way for you to understand the experience of an individual or a group. It’s a tool to help you empathize in a meaningful, useful way. You might have guessed, after reading about How to Use an Empathy Map, that the tool gets pulled out of our toolbelt often. We use them all the time in our work. Find three ideal opportunities for filling in an empathy map below, and scroll to the bottom for a free tool download!
1. You’re building or Improving a solution for someone
Maybe it’s an online shopping platform for our customers or donors. Maybe it’s a women's shelter. Maybe it’s a library. Maybe it's an educational course. You’re building a solution for someone who isn’t necessarily you, so it’s helpful to understand that person’s or those people’s experience of your solution.
For example, we were recently working with a large international NGO who receives a lot of donations online. They have an online store where people can select the type of donation they want to make (buying a well for a community, for example). They had received feedback from their customers that they were having trouble navigating the online platform, and they were losing donations as a result. We worked with them to fill out empathy maps for customers going to their site for each of the different types of donations they take to understand where the breaking points were and where they could start to make improvements.
Tip: In this case, you’ll likely be empathizing with a persona who represents different segments of your user group, but who doesn't necessarily exist in real life (and you don't know them personally). Take some extra time to build out that persona to really delve into their needs, and come up with a number of different personas to empathize with.
Below is an empathy map from a project we did with a local mental health organization to understand the needs of individuals with concurrent disorders. Though we also engaged with people with lived experience as part of that project, the map below is for a fictional person named Joe.
2. You’re conducting community engagement or staff engagement
As part of your engagement with your users—or your community engagement, as public services tend to call their user research—you might use the tool as an activity that you have your community members do. We tend to get the best insights when we get the people we’re empathizing with to fill out the empathy map themselves.
For example, when we're facilitating with library staff to include their voice in an engagement project or in an upcoming strategic plan, we’ll often have all of the staff members fill in an empathy map to describe their experience within their role at the library, including their needs and obstacles. They’re typically anonymous, and when we analyze them afterward we can pick out what’s going well in the library environment and where the opportunities for improvement may exist.
We used the empathy map below (front and back) in an engagement project with aging adults to help improve their experience in the health care system in New York. During one of our Stakeholder Labs (similar to a focus group), we had aging adults fill in the map below.
3. You need buy-in for an idea AND/or you’re building an advocacy strategy
Often when we fill in empathy maps, we’re empathizing with a persona, or a hypothetical user. In this case, we’re empathizing with a real person. When you’re advocating an idea, a policy, or anything, really, you’re generally trying to convince someone or a group of people to buy into it. Understanding how to approach that person or group by filling out an empathy map for them helps you be more effective and efficient in your efforts.
For example, last year we facilitated a group who wanted to bring a major event to their town, and to do so they needed to get the mayor behind them. As a group, we filled in an empathy map for the mayor. It helped the group understand what the mayor’s needs are—for example, the need for the broader community to be asking for the event, not just this group of people—so that they can plan to meet that need. Understanding the context of that person outside of just what you’re asking of them can also be helpful to build your relationship with them and create sensitivity to their experience as a whole.
As we recognize more and more the importance of the experience of our user and human-centred design gains popularity, tools like an empathy map give us an easy place to start. Have you used an Empathy Map in the past? Where have you found it to be useful?
Haven't used one before? Download and print out our empathy map below to get started!