How to use Empathy Mapping to Create Better Digital Products and Services

How to use Empathy Mapping to Create Better Digital Products and Services

  • Design Thinking /
  • Process /
  • Product Strategy /

Companies that create exceptional customer experiences (CX) stand out from the competition. Great customer experiences create value for both customers and the business. It’s a focus on building a win/win relationship. 

Empathy mapping can be an invaluable tool to help you focus on the right things: Shifting your teams into a customer-centric mindset, identifying what it will take to meet the needs of your target audience, and creating solutions with higher value and stronger impact.  

Today your digital products and services are central to the customer experience. Websites are increasingly becoming more than an entry point. They are a critical tool for delivering on a business’ brand promise. Mobile apps in some cases are the product(s).  In other scenarios, mobile apps may be an extension of an existing product or service, offering increased value (experience) of engaging with that organization. It could be a digital product or service focused on sales enablement, product delivery, customer service, etc… 

To accomplish this, you need to understand your audience. This understanding is an essential foundation for creating, delivering, and managing the customer experience. It  may very well determine if your product or service is successful. 

What is Empathy?

Before we dive into the details of what Empathy Mapping is let’s talk about what empathy means. 

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. 

The ability to develop empathy is at the very foundation of design thinking, and the disciplines focused on customer experience (a.k.a. User Experience) design. It is essential for developing a deeper understanding of your audiences, and how you can create the best solutions to meet their needs.  

When you create or work to improve a digital product, it is essential to remember that being empathetic requires us to withhold from making assumptions, to discard biases, and actively engage with your audiences.   When we do this, we are able to cultivate an understanding of someone else’s situation and how they’re feeling. We are able to then respond appropriately to their unique situation. 

How Empathy Mapping Helps

Empathy Mapping is a collaborative process used to visualize and articulate what an organization knows about a particular audience.  It externalizes knowledge about a specific audience in order to create a shared understanding of their needs, what they are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing and doing. 

It is effective in guiding teams into a customer-centric mindset. It also facilitates a focused development of more impactful solutions, and aids in decision making. 

The empathy-mapping process helps distill and categorize your knowledge of the audience into one place. 

It can be used to:

  • Categorize and make sense of qualitative research such as research notes, survey answers, user-interview transcripts, etc. 

  • Discover gaps in your current knowledge and identify the types of research needed to address it. A sparse empathy map indicates that more research needs to be done.

  • Create personas by aligning and grouping empathy maps covering individual users.

7 Elements of an Empathy Map Canvas 

There are several formats of Empathy Maps. The Empathy Map Canvas is a great format for product teams, as it delves deeper into the context of the target audience and their situation. This version was produced by Dave Gray in collaboration with Alex Osterwalder, designer of the business model canvas. 

To download the template click here. 

This version goes beyond the traditional format that is split into 4 quadrants to help to articulate and communicate key information the rest of the team can benefit from. This format also prompts a deeper conversation that helps build a common language and understanding

Here are the 7 quadrants that make up the Empathy Map Canvas and questions. Each area helps to create a deeper understanding to illustrate the target audience persona. 

  1. Who are we empathizing with?
    • Who is the person we want to understand?
    • What is the situation they are in?
    • What is their role in the situation?
  2. What do they need to do?
    • What do they need to do differently?
    • What job(s) do they want or need to get done?
    • What decisions(s) do they need to make?
    • How will we know they were successful? 
  3. What do they see?
    • What do they see in the marketplace?
    • What do they see in their immediate environment?
    • What do they see others saying and doing?
    • What are they watching and reading?
  4. What do they say?
    • What have we heard them say?
    • What can we imagine them saying?
  5. What do they do?
    • What do they do today?
    • What behavior have we observed?
    • What can we imagine them doing?
  6. What do they hear? 
    • What are they hearing others say?
    • What are they hearing from friends?
    • What are they hearing from colleagues?
    • What are they hearing second hand?
  7. What do they think and feel?
    • Pains – What are their fears, frustrations, and anxieties?
    • Gains – What are their wants, needs, hopes, and dreams?

The process is as valuable as the visualization of your empathy map. It provides invaluable texture to your target audience personas and how to think about their entire user journey.  

How to Create an Empathy Map That Improves Your Customer Experience

1) Don’t empathize with just your ideal audience

One of the most common mistakes when developing audience personas is  only focusing on the ideal customer/user. While this individual is important, they rarely capture the full depth and nuance of your target market, the different contexts and varying situations that they’re living. 

Think back to the last time you were on an airplane. What was the context of your situation? Were you traveling for work? Was it to go on vacation? Maybe it was to get home before your son or daughter was born. Maybe it was to see a loved one for the last time. Now imagine how that might have felt if the gate agent was rude? Or you had a connection to make and your flight was two hours delayed? What would you be thinking, feeling, and doing in that moment?

We are all impacted by the context of a situation in very different ways at different times in our lives. As we create experiences, it’s important that we don’t look at just the ideal scenarios but design solutions, experiences, products, and services with a broader, deeper understanding. The job your product might require it. 

2) Unlock insights from new and existing research  

An impactful empathy map is based on real data. You can create your empathy map from user interviews, observational studies, and qualitative surveys. The use of empathy mapping is most common at the beginning of a project within the UX design process. The insights that can come from this exercise can help to inform your strategy, define product or service requirements, prioritize opportunities to address the needs of audiences, and deliver the most value. 

A second often-missed opportunity is  conducting the empathy mapping exercise for your existing digital product or service. It can  unlock new insights, opportunities, and challenges that determine your roadmap going forward. Empathy maps can also be a great way to get a deeper understanding of what an organization thinks they know vs. what they don’t know about an audience. When applied in this way, you can conduct a gap analysis to highlight where additional research and conversations with customers could be invaluable. 

3) Encourage cross-functional team participation 

You and your team  may be responsible for creating the product (solution) but who’s responsible for selling, delivering, and supporting it? Empathy mapping is a great tool for bringing teams together. This cross-functional collaboration helps to reveal  team members’ thinking, and their understanding of a persona. Another big benefit of this approach is that it often pulls together insights that can get siloed within a specific stage of the customer journey and the teams that support them at that point. By incorporating a cross-functional approach you are able to obtain a 360-degree view of each persona.  

Each team participant should write their responses on post-it notes and stick them to the map as well. The discussions that evolve from people sharing and talking through their sticky notes as they place them on the Empathy Map is an invaluable part of this process.  This creates a collaborative space where people ask questions, and identify patterns, and you can start grouping of similar attributes. This assists in improving the process, and the results of mapping. At the end of an empathy mapping session, ask them what new insights they learned that will help them during product development or what assumptions they have about the users they’d like to validate. 

Create Better Digital Products and Services

Whether your digital solution is customer facing or internal, empathy mapping can help to align your team, remove biases, unearth a deeper understanding of what drives user behavior, identify new opportunities, and provide a lens to prioritize your efforts. This insight allows you to focus and work  towards having the highest level of impact in the research, planning, experience design and technologies you invest into.

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