What is an empathy map in UX?

Good user experiences come from a clear understanding of your users’ wants and needs.

Users get a good experience when a software program, website, or other digital service serves their goal(s). When it matches their technical understanding. When it’s easy to use, and presents no issues or stumbling blocks.

To deliver these positive results, UX designers need to understand and empathise with their users. And once they have done so, they need a way to record and share that understanding with their colleagues and with other departments.

Enter the empathy map. But what is an empathy map, exactly? Here’s an overview of this crucial UX tool.

What is an empathy map?

An empathy map is a way to visualise knowledge about users. It involves putting yourself in the user’s shoes to gain insight into what they want, what they like, what they dislike. (And everything in between.)

You can create an empathy map for a single user, or they can represent an aggregated group — such as a segment of customers.

Either way, with an empathy map, you’re capturing a visual understanding of the user. You get a digestible representation of their behaviours, thoughts, actions, and attitudes toward the software or website in question.

In turn, this helps you to create better user experiences.

Why are empathy maps so important?

UX designers need to understand user wants, needs, and feelings. Moreover, they need a way to convey and share that understanding with their colleagues both in the UX team, and other departments, like development.

And this is the ‘why’ behind empathy maps. An empathy map in UX is a tool to ease collaboration between teams and departments.

An empathy map visualises a wealth of user information. They can be a great way to summarise qualitative data from surveys. And they make a useful resource to refer back to, to ensure the product or website design remains in line with user desires.

When should you use empathy maps?

Empathy maps are the most useful right at the start of the design journey. You typically make them after you’ve conducted your user research, as a way to visualise what you’ve discovered. This should then help inform the later stages of design.

However, while you make empathy maps early, they’re useful throughout the rest of the design process.

You can use your empathy maps whenever you need to be reminded of the user’s views and headspace.

For instance, an empathy map can help you create and add detail to your user stories. Or assist with customisation efforts. Or simply provide a concise way to distil future intelligence you gain about a given user or user segment.

How do you make an empathy map?

An empathy map typically takes the form of a square divided into four quadrants; with the user(s) it represents in the middle.

Each quadrant has a different label:

1.       Says

The first quadrant is full of quotes directly from the user(s) in question. This covers things they’ve explicitly said about the software or website you’re making.

This will likely cover the things that they want/expect. You collect these quotes during interviews with the user(s), and from feedback forms, past reviews, usability studies and so on.

2.       Does

Creating an empathy map means capturing the behaviour of the user(s) in question. One of the quadrants, then, is all about what the user does, and how they do it.

For instance, do they refresh the page on your website a lot? Are they shopping around? Do they click repeatedly, or keep going back and forth between features?

This section is also the place to add notes on what these behaviours suggest about the user’s thoughts and feelings. Why are they behaving this way?

3.       Thinks

The next quadrant requires you to consider what the user is or will be thinking during the experience with your product.

A lot of what fits into the ‘says’ quadrant will also fit into the ‘thinks’ side. However, it’s also important to think about what the user may think but NOT vocalise to you — and why they’re unwilling to share.

For instance, if they think an aspect is boring, they may not say so out of politeness.

Filling out this quadrant requires you to look at what the user has said, put yourself in their position, and ask what they’re thinking about. Consider what matters to them. Then, use what you know of them to determine their more implicit views about your product.

4.       Feels

Understanding the user’s thoughts is only part of the empathising you need to do to create a complete empathy map. The last quadrant requires you to take it a step further and work out what the user feels about your project.

Some of this can be gleaned from what they’ve said, or what they’ve done. Other parts can come from what you believe they’re thinking.

Ask yourself things like:

  • “What worries the user?”
  • “What excites the user?”
  • “How does this aspect of the design/experience make them feel?”

Typically, an empathy map will list the feeling or emotion followed by a short statement to provide the context for that feeling.

For instance:

TL;DR: Empathy maps

Empathy maps are the product of a UX designer placing themselves in the shoes of the user.

While it takes some time and effort to create an empathy map, doing so unlocks a treasure trove of context behind design decisions. Additionally, the map can help anyone understand the user at any point in the development lifecycle.

In short, empathy maps depict an understanding of user thoughts and feelings. This understanding then helps to inform the design and development of truly useful, well-received software and websites.

Useful links

Building empathy with your users

Why your users hate your flashy new design (and what to do about it)

The fallacy of not selling features