Empathy Mapping for Customer-Centered Product Design: A Step-By-Step Guide to the Empathy Map Template

Empathy Mapping for Customer-Centered Product Design: A Step-By-Step Guide to the Empathy Map Template

Has this ever happened to you? A friend tells you about a product they love. You try it yourself, and it’s not right for you. However, you can see why your friend likes it so much. You are able to step into their context to understand why they experience the product differently. In other words: you empathize.

If we all liked the same things, product design would be easy, and life would be boring. As it is, we connect with other people by listening to them and drawing on our own experiences. We can be excited about something that makes our friend happy, even if it’s not really our thing. We identify with their emotions and find ways to relate to the experience they’re having.

Empathizing with friends is vital to our interpersonal relationships, and empathizing with customers is key to successful product development. That’s why design and development teams use empathy maps. Empathy mapping guides Agile teams to absorb the customer experience and create products that continuously improve it.

Sort user feedback on the Empathy Map template to feel what your end users feel. Imagine the product from their point of view, in the context of their everyday life. The video chat on Whiteboards as you analyze your data collaboratively. Create better prototypes, improve current products, and design new features that your typical end user really wants. 

Turn your discoveries into actions with native Whiteboards-Jira integration. Import Jira issues or create new ones using virtual sticky notes. Updates on the digital canvas sync automatically in Jira to streamline your product planning and design work.

Try Whiteboards for free today, and keep reading to dive deep into customer-centered design, including the do’s and don’ts of empathy mapping and a step-by-step empathy map example.

What is an empathy map?

Empathy maps are a tool for understanding what users really want by stepping into their personal experiences. Creating an empathy map helps teams design better products by deeply examining the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the current user base and the target customer.

The Empathy Map template sorts customer feedback using six key questions:

  • What does the user think and feel? What emotions are they expressing and what are their perceptions of their experience?
  • What do they see? What does the customer observe online or in their daily life? What stands out to them?
  • What do they hear? What are other people saying that grabs the user’s attention?
  • What do they say and do? What does the customer mention about their daily routine and the activities they participate in? What do they say to family, friends, or colleagues?
  • What are their current pains? What causes worry, anxiety, frustration, or stress in the user’s daily life, whether or not it seems directly related to the product?
  • Where are their potential gains? What does the customer hope for, wish for, and dream about? What do they want out of the product, or just life generally?

What are good guidelines for empathy mapping?

You’ll notice that the empathy map categories are broad and often overlap. As a result, it’s easy to overthink how to categorize something or get ahead of the process when a customer comment sparks an interesting design idea. To stay focused, you need a plan of attack.

To keep your empathy map sessions on track:

  • Do treat the categories as flexible tools to get at the larger picture.
  • Do gather extensive qualitative data to inform your empathy mapping.
  • Do include lifestyle clues, even if they don’t seem immediately relevant to the product.

To avoid major empathy map pitfalls:

  • Don’t extrapolate from stereotypes or assumptions – listen to the actual data.
  • Don’t de-prioritize customer experiences you don’t personally relate to.
  • Don’t jump immediately to solutions before establishing the big picture.

When is empathy mapping used?

Empathy maps can be useful at various stages of product development. Teams might make an empathy map to help them:

  • create a product prototype based on preliminary research
  • understand feedback from early adopters to improve a current design
  • prioritize upcoming feature releases according to the biggest user gains
  • brainstorm solutions to customer pain points throughout the product life cycle

What are the benefits of empathy maps?

Empathy maps guide the teams that design, develop, and market a product. The empathy map process equips Agile teams to:

  • establish an intimate understanding of the people using the product
  • create a user experience that meets the customer where they’re at
  • design features that address the real needs of the typical end user
  • avoid assuming what customers want by studying what they actually say
  • understand how to better promote the product to the target customer
  • brainstorm how to build the product out to appeal to an expanded base

Customer empathy is at the heart of effective product planning. Understand your users’ perspectives deeply in order to design products they will love.

How do I use the Empathy Map template?

Follow along with a step-by-step empathy map example.

Let’s examine empathy maps by following a hypothetical product development team through the process. As you read, imagine how this empathy map example can inform your own product discovery. 

In our example, the product is a meal-planning app with an interactive database of recipes and cooking tips. The app integrates inputs about dietary restrictions, food preferences, household size, and preparation efforts to help the user successfully plan and make delicious meals.

Our empathy map example team has released a free beta version of the app and engaged its target user demographics to test the product and provide feedback.

1. Establish user personas.

Our example team uses the User Persona template to divide their customer base into archetypal personas representing different major demographics.

User Persona template on Whiteboards.io
User Persona template on Whiteboards.io

They identify five fictional users that broadly represent the primary segments of their real user base:

  1. “Emma” is a young stay-at-home mother with small children. She’s a good cook, but her kids are picky eaters, and her husband has a number of food allergies.
  2. “Jacqueline” works full-time outside the home. Her middle schoolers have a busy activity schedule. She splits grocery shopping and meal prep with her boyfriend.
  3. “Liam” is a single dad with joint custody of his teenage daughter. He wants to make healthy food both of them will enjoy when she’s staying with him.
  4. “Sam” and “Maria” are a couple with no kids. Their goal is to cook together and entertain guests with elegant meals paired with appropriate drinks.
  5. “Daniel” is a college student on a tight budget. He tries to cook at least three times a week and find creative ways to use leftovers.

To organize incoming data, the team groups people according to the five established user personas. Of course, not every current or potential customer fits neatly into each box. But the personas allow the team to feel out different lifestyles and the user demands associated with each one.

2. Gather qualitative data from the target end user demographic.

The team prepares for their empathy map exercise using data from three sources:

  • Beta testers. The team’s dedicated testers were the basis for developing the five user personas. The testers receive generous grocery store gift cards and a free one-year app subscription in return for answering weekly surveys and giving detailed feedback on their product experience. 
  • Focus groups. These sessions target end users who roughly fit the five user personas. These people aren’t testing the product. They’re just talking about how meal planning fits into their lives: what’s helped, what continues to frustrate them, and things they feel would improve the process.
  • Online feedback. The free app is live and people are leaving reviews. The team sorts this data by user persona according to clues in the online comments. They are also collecting data from customer emails and social media channels.

3. Choose a user persona and add data to virtual sticky notes on the template.

The team adds the Empathy Map template to the virtual canvas and selects their first user persona: “Emma,” the young mother dealing with picky eaters and food allergies. Then they add comments from the “Emma” user data pool, starting with their focus group discussions:

  • I’m a decent cook, but I just wish I knew how to blend spices better.
  • I’m bored with making the same thing over and over.
  • I just want a week’s worth of dinners my kids will actually eat.
  • Cooking shows feel inspiring, but I almost never actually make the food.
  • Apparently, there’s a website to get recipes to use ingredients you already have.
  • I’ll look up recipes online, and there’s too much information.
  • I just want to know what to buy, how much to buy, and how to cook it.
  • I hate it when I buy too much fresh food and it goes to waste.
  • I shop for groceries once a week. I don’t have time for more trips.
  • My friend has a meal prep delivery service, which is nice if you can afford it.
  • I have to read every label to make sure there are no allergens.

4. Move sticky notes to appropriate zones on the empathy map.

The empathy map example team adds comments from all their data sources. Then, they study the sticky notes and ask what people are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, saying, and doing. What challenges is the target customer facing, and what do they hope for?

When a user comment contains more than one clue, the team might split it up across multiple categories. For instance: “I hate it when I buy too much fresh food and it goes to waste.” Under “pain,” the team puts “wasting food,” and under “do,” they write “overbuys produce.”

5. Consolidate data into a story about user experience.

Next, the team writes a first-person account of the archetypal end user’s situation using the collective thoughts, feelings, and experiences on the template.

For the user persona “Emma,” the story starts out like this:

“I watch cooking shows and feel inspired, but also overwhelmed. When I shop for groceries, I end up buying too much or too little. What I really need is somewhere I can plug in what my family can’t and won’t eat, and get meal plans and a grocery list that tells me exactly what to buy in what quantities…”

6. Repeat the process with the other user personas.

Our example team creates an empathy map and user experience story for each of their user personas. Then they compare the stories to discover common threads. The team can now begin to articulate design features that will satisfy the broader customer base as well as those that will make or break the product for a certain demographic.

The team saves all their documentation on the canvas for reference as they design, develop, and market the product. They update their customer stories periodically as they continue collecting data, allowing them to walk closely with the user throughout all stages of product development.

Whiteboards for the product life cycle

Get to know your customers in depth with the User Persona template and the Empathy Map template. Create user-centered products by organizing large pools of data in ways that capture your customers’ greatest needs and desires.

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