Skip to main content

We all know the people saying things such as “our user wants this” or “our user wouldn’t do this” but they won’t be coming from the mouths of the UX’ers. As a designer (or a programmer, or a manager) we are not the user of a product, we are the professional that needs to understand the user and translate their needs into functional design. And empathy mapping is a great way to do so.

Often during our research, we hear our users talk about their frustrations, we see their struggles and hear their words and thus we emphatize with our users. But the other stakeholders; your manager, developer, or client aren’t there during those moments. They might think they know their user, but they don’t know what the user needs or wants. Empathy mapping is a great method to help others understand your users.

The power of empathy

Empathy, according to the Oxford dictionary translates to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy mapping bases its practice on, you guessed it, empathy. For some empathy comes naturally, for most people empathy requires more effort. Empathy is created by taking your time researching, observing, interviewing, and surmising data to better understand the user.

Renowned psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman (2008) have identified three components of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate.

Cognititve empathy is about knowing how another person feels and understanding what they might be thinking. It is about looking at things from different perspectives. Emotional empathy is about physically feeling along with another person as if their emotions are contagious. And compassionate empathy is not just about understanding what a person is going through and feeling for them but also jumping up at the opportunity to help them.

When we look at empathy mapping our focus in UX research mainly lies in creating cognitive empathy. Learning to understand how a person is feeling and understanding their thoughts and desires.

So what is an empathy map and why do we make one?

Similar to a journey map, an empathy map is a visual representation of what we know of the user’s behaviors and attitudes. It is an incredibly helpful tool when presenting your findings to colleagues and ensuring teams are on the same page when it comes to understanding the user. Other benefits of an empathy map are:

  • an easy visual understanding of key insights of the research
  • relatively fast and inexpensive to create
  • creates a better understanding of the user(s)
  • easily revised when new information arises

Is it just something a UX’er creates?

Not necessarily. The fun thing about empathy mapping is that you can turn it into a team workshop activity. You can involve your stakeholders, clients, marketing, sales, designers, and developers to build empathy and understanding for the user. The outcome of these workshops is that everyone gets on the same page when it comes to who the user is and what their wants and needs are.

For a team to create a good and effective solution for a user, they need to understand the true problems the users face. An empathy map workshop creates empathy within the team.

When should you start empathy mapping?

An empathy map is most useful at the beginning of the design process after you have done your initial user research to learn more about them, but before you create the requirements and start concepting. But empathy mapping can also be super interesting to do when a product has been around for a while and the product has maybe forgotten about the users in the past year and just pushed new features. An empathy map and the research that belongs with it could help create new perspectives on the user and the product they interact with.

Through empathy mapping, you can synthesize research results and reveal deeper insights into what a user needs. Empathy maps are most useful when based on actual research data. if this data isn’t available an empathy map could still be created by using knowledge from internal participants. This form of empathy mapping could help you figure out which information about the user is missing and thus where to focus your research.

How to create an empathy map?

To create an empathy map you need qualitative research data, persona’s (preferably), and your team. Creating an empathy map is a great team exercise to do in workshop form. Bring a whiteboard or big A2 (or even bigger) size paper, some coloured sticky notes, and markers. There are many examples of empathy maps online, but drawing one yourself also works. If you work remotely or hybrid, then use a tool like Miro for your online empathy map creation.

Step 1: What is your focus / goal?

Firstly you need to know who the person is with whom you are trying to empathize with. Use your persona for this step so you and the team have a clear idea of who it is you’re creating an empathy map of. With multiple persona’s you’ll need multiple empathy maps.

Step 2: Capture the outside world

In the second step, you need to take a look at what you know about this person within their world. People in your team may have a lot of knowledge from their fields. A product owner may know a lot about what the user sees, a data analyst could give insights into what the user does. Collect this in post its and post them on your empathy map. Specifically, look at the four sections of the empathy map here.

What does the user see?

  • What does this user encounter during their experience (other people, activities, or even things that are used)?
  • What are the people around this user doing?
  • What is this person watching (like TV, kids in a playground, runners on a track)?
  • What is this person reading (books, magazines, newspapers)?
  • What is the user exposed to (other products, a marketplace, ads, anything that can influence)?

What does the user do and say?

  • What behavior does your user show?
  • How do they conduct themself?
  • What is their attitude and what do they say?
  • Does the person’s attitude change depending on where they are or what situation they are in?
  • Is their behavior different in a private versus a more public setting?

What does the user hear?

  • What is the user hearing and how does it influence them?
  • Think about the people around them, what do they say to influence them? Dont forget about the influence of (social) media, relatives, friends and field experts.

Image taken from Dribble

Step 3: Capture the inside world

In the third step, we look inwards. This is where you explore the thoughts and feelings of your user. Sometimes these are guessed, based on reviews or other data, but if that data is not available, doing research to find out is a good idea. Interviews can give good insights into what users think or feel, and so will focus groups or diary studies. If you have this data then make sure to present it to your team as it will be useful in this step.

What does the user think/feel?

  • What is on your users mind? Think about both positive and negative thoughts that occur.
  • What makes your user feel good about themself or a situation?
  • Is there anything this user worries about? Anything that would keep them awake at night?
  • If your user would try something new, how would they feel about this task?

What gives the user pain?

  • How would this user describe success?
  • And what about failure?
  • What would be considered a challenge or even a frustration to this user?
  • What obstacles are in the way of this user’s success?

What would the user gain?

  • Describe the goals of your user, what would be their dream?
  • What would the user aspire to have or achieve?

Step 4: Summarize and share your findings

When all of these sections are complete take a moment to reflect and let everything sink in. Let the team share their thoughts in the process and more importantly the findings. Has it changed their perspectives on the user? Or has it raised more questions? If there are more questions about the user now, this could be input for further research.

When you work in an office, hanging your empathy map in the space you work can be a reminder for people when working on designs. It could be useful to check design ideas with the empathy map to see if it would fit your user and it can help with making sure you all design for the same person.


The main goal of an empathy map exercise is of course to dive into the mind of your user, but it is a great tool to get the user at the center of everyone’s mind, not just the UX’ers. But don’t get too hung up during a session when post-its don’t go in the right spot or when one section has way more post-its than the other one. Sometimes certain spots are less prevalent than others.

When you have a big team, let smaller teams make empathy maps and present them to each other to learn from one another, compare and discuss before coming up with a final empathy map for your user.

But above all, be open, be curious and have fun while doing this UX exercise. an empathy map is about creating an understanding of the user and changing the team’s perspective toward the user and their needs.