How to Use an Empathy Map
An Empathy Map is one of those tools that we always keep in our back pocket because it often produces an "aha!" moment and it is incredibly versatile.
Originally developed by Scott Matthews, Empathy Maps provide a process for empathizing with your own customers, service or product users, or stakeholders. They help us dig into a person's experience of the context in which we interact with them.
Continue reading to learn how to use an empathy map as a research tool and scroll to the bottom for a free download to try it yourself!
We recently worked with a client who was struggling with negative attitudes toward a required professional development course. After participating, their students left raving about it, but beforehand, people seemed to dread it. We had groups of participants come up with empathy maps for a particular persona that reflected a segment of their students before they took the course.
After reflecting on what that person is seeing, thinking, feeling, doing, hearing, and saying as they think about the upcoming course in their regular context, along with their needs and obstacles in taking the course, the group had unlocked a new understanding of their course participants and were able to identify specific areas to improve on in order to move forward.
This experience illustrates how Empathy Maps can work: they provide a process for unpacking a person's experience with your product, service, or organization. Using an Empathy Map can build your understanding of the different parts of their environment that they're reacting to and engaging with.
Empathy Maps for Public Advocacy
A number of our projects are also in the realm of public advocacy. Advocacy work is all about changing attitudes and behaviours, sometimes of specific people, sometimes of groups of people, and sometimes of organizations or government.
The benefit of using an Empathy Map in this type of scenario is to understand what your stakeholder's needs are outside of your context: what is the experience of a dignitary in the Ministry of Trade, and how can you speak to that experience as you try to shift their attitude toward your proposed policy?
Another great example of this is in our community engagement work with libraries. We sometimes have patrons, or staff members fill out empathy maps speaking to their experiences and needs in their community more broadly. The leadership teams from those libraries say that they often bring out those empathy maps at the beginning of meetings to ground their discussions and decisions in the experiences and needs of the people they serve.
How to Use an Empathy Map
Empathy Maps can be done solo or with a team. You can use a pre-designed map, like the free download below. Allow about 20-30 minutes for each empathy map. As you move through the steps, we'll work through an example scenario with you: purchasing a birthday gift for a friend.
- Determine the person you are striving to understand.
What is their name, age, etc.? Write down a few details about them: do they have a job, a family, or something else distinctive about their daily life? How do they spend their free time?
In our example, you'll be empathizing with your friend as they approach celebrating their birthday. Let's say our friend is Jose, a 32-year-old father of three who works as a nurse at the busy local hospital. He's also quite handy and likes building things in his free time.
Note: it may not be a real person you're trying to empathize with. For example, if you're a hospital CEO looking to improve your hospital waiting room experience, you might make up a number of different people who could conceivably be in the waiting room and fill in empathy maps for each of their situations.
- Put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about their experience.
If you're thinking about them in relation to your work, then think about their experience as they approach your work. If you're thinking about them as a stakeholder, you need think about their life holistically. What are they seeing? Saying? Answer all six questions on the map in as much detail as you can imagine.
In our example, we're likely thinking about your friend's life in general. Thinking back to Jose, in his typical day, he sees his family and the floor of the hospital he works on bustling with other hospital staff and sick patients; he hears his mom asking him to help her fix something that's broken in her house, his kids saying they missed him while he worked his 12 hour shifts, and his patients thanking him for taking good care of them; etc.
- After you’ve filled out your Empathy Map, list three things that person wants or needs, and three obstacles to those needs.
If it's not obvious what that person wants or needs already, review the experience you've captured in the map and then think about their needs.
In our example, maybe you identified that Jose needs time to relax, facing the obstacle of living a very busy lifestyle. Maybe Jose needs childcare while he builds a new shed.
You may have developed personas before. An empathy map is similar to personas, but you spend less time describing traits of the hypothetical users and more time digging into how the project looks and feels from their viewpoint and what you can extrapolate about their wants and needs.
Tips for Using Empathy Maps
- When you can, invite real live stakeholders to complete first-person empathy maps! Developing empathy maps for varied and contrasting hypothetical users can really round out your understanding of user experience.
- Post the empathy maps where you (and your team, if you have one) can see them daily. Developing and consulting an empathy map helps you and your team to consider the many forces around your users and customers that affect their experiences. Check in from time to time: How would this feature of the project look to “Karen”? What would “Kareem” say about this change? What else will “Karl” be doing when he uses this?
By learning how to use an empathy map, you can empathize with a client or stakeholder's real experiences, wants, and needs all from their own viewpoint. Get started now:
💡 Wondering when to use an Empathy Map? Check out 3 Occasions for an Empathy Map!
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