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Empathy mapping and the design thinking process

By Academy Xi

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empathy mapping academy xi

If you want to produce products and services that truly address the needs of your users, then taking a design thinking approach is the ticket. In this article, we explore empathy mapping and how it can empower your design process and result in meaningful, successful outcomes.

First up, let’s start with the basics. What is empathy?


The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. 

When it comes to human-centred design, empathy is a must-have skill. Essentially, empathy enables a designer to identify with the end-user.

Anyone involved in the research stages of designing a product or service can witness firsthand the experiences of the user’s engagement with said product or service and empathise with any perceived frustrations or challenges the user might have. 

The tricky part: how to help those not involved with the user testing and research phases to have empathy for the user’s experience. Many will ‘think’ they know how the user will or won’t react to the different aspects of a product or service, but if they weren’t involved in the research phase, these opinions are precisely that. Opinions. How can a design team help others better understand the user experience?

Enter the empathy map.

What is an empathy map?

What is an empathy map academy xi

One of many tools that can be harnessed when developing products and services using a design thinking approach, an empathy map captures and summarises findings and observations from the research phase and can help to identify insights into the user’s needs.

Typically, an empathy map is made up of four key areas (say, think, feel and do – more on this later) and the completed map provides an overview of a user’s experience of the product or service.

Essentially, an empathy map is a guide that can provide a design team with a vital understanding of who their user audience is, the audience’s concerns and challenges and what they truly want and need. It enables design teams to craft specific solutions that address these pain points, helping to create an enhanced user experience.

Beyond the design team, the empathy map can be incredibly useful in articulating the user experience at various stages of the design process to stakeholders, such as the client and other teams working on the product or service development.

What are the elements of empathy mapping?

Elements of empathy mapping infographic academy xi

While empathy maps can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, it’s not uncommon for a map to include four quadrants: say, think, feel and do.

  • Say

What is the user saying about the product? This section should ideally contain user quotes from the interviews and testing groups.

  • Think

What is the user thinking about when they are interacting with the service or product? This can be gained from interviews during the research.

  • Feel 

This covers the emotional state of the user during testing – how are they feeling when they engage with the product? What concerns them? How are they feeling throughout their experience with the product or service?

  • Do 

This section covers the actions taken by the user, or the behaviours they displayed.

While it can be fairly straightforward to understand what a user said or did, being able to define what they thought or felt isn’t as simple and requires considered observation and analysis.

Empathy maps and user personas

Empathy maps and user personas go hand-in-hand, with the map forming the basis for creating a persona. Each persona you wish to create requires its own empathy map.

As the empathy map is created off the back of observation and research of real people engaging with the product you are designing, it makes the personas more authentic. Authenticity is important, as each of your personas should represent your target market (users), with the personas including more details such as demographic data, personality traits, age, motivation and the like.

How to build your own empathy map 

Set your empathy map up for success by being prepared before your mapping session with these top three tips:

  1. Conduct research

Real data is paramount for empathy mapping. Arrange opportunities to interview users and observe them interacting with prototypes of your product, taking detailed notes of your observations.

Reading through any existing qualitative survey results, reports or previous interviews with user groups is also important.

  1. Gather your team

Empathy mapping should be a team effort. Gather people from your product team, as well as other stakeholders to bring a balance of both business insight and user needs to the table. Working as a team to produce an empathy map promotes teamwork, but also enables the product team to be on the same wavelength as other stakeholders, which is an important foundation to build early on.

  1. Invite a moderator

Having an experienced group facilitator can make all the difference to a working session. The moderator will be versed in remaining neutral throughout, involving everyone in the session, not expressing their personal opinion and refraining from asking leading questions.

empathy mapping infographic

Let the mapping begin

Remember, you need one empathy map for each persona to ensure you get the most meaningful insights.

  1. Context is key

Clearly define the subject or persona of the map, giving as much detail as possible to set the scene so the team can understand and empathise with the user’s situation.

  1. Bring the persona to life

Provide the team with details to make the personas come to life. Details could include a headshot image of someone who represents the persona, or you could pinpoint their name, age, occupation, wardrobe – you can have fun with this – and ensure that each persona is clearly defined from the next.

  1. Thoughts on post-its

During the main session, get team members to put their thoughts down onto individual post-it notes and put them onto the map, discussing their thoughts with the rest of the team. This format can encourage more insights to be revealed.

  1. Time to summarise

Once the workshop is completed, discuss the map as a team – are there any clear patterns that have emerged? This is another chance for team members to share their thoughts and discuss any insights that can help shape product and/or service development.

Gather the information from the session, summarise it and share it amongst the team, making sure it is saved in a central location so it can easily be updated as you learn more about each persona.

How to start a career in design thinking

Inspired to integrate empathy mapping into your next product design project? Completing a Design Thinking course with industry-aligned content will give you the practical skills and strategic mindset needed to deliver products and services that address the needs of your target audience. 

At Academy Xi, we offer quality, hands-on training options to elevate your existing skill-set and enhance your career prospects. 

Want to discuss your transferable skills and short course options? Speak to a course advisor today and take the first steps in your Design Thinking journey.