Assumptions are one of the biggest risks you can take in the marketing world. You assume you understand what your customers want. You assume you know the problems facing an industry. You assume customers are willing to pay for a service. 

Often, these assumptions are based on information, but this data or personal experience is flawed. It either doesn’t paint a complete picture of the situation (like zooming in on the nose of the Mona Lisa), or it skews the correct view like a prized Picasso. 

The process of empathy mapping was created to provide detailed and accurate descriptions of audiences to better help designers and developers create useful products. Over the years, its use has expanded across several industries and disciplines. 

What Exactly Is Empathy Mapping? 

Empathy mapping uses a set template and brainstorming sessions to answer questions about a specific audience

In marketing, the goal of these maps is to highlight flaws in logic and missing pieces of customer information.

“By making the map visual and directing the inquiry at a specific target we are able to build a much better picture of our market,” says Charles Leon, designer and keynote speaker. “It’s often the case that these kinds of maps can reveal where we have gaps in our existing data and where we have made assumptions.” 

Leon shares examples of one of his empathy maps and walks readers through his process of developing and improving them. One aspect is clear: The map is a living representation of the audience. It’s constantly edited, updated and improved upon with more detailed or more accurate information.  

Dave Gray, author of books like “The Connected Company” and founder of XPLANE, was the original developer of the empathy map. Gray most recently updated the process of map creation in 2017 as a way to centralize the design of the map and ensure that the creations of others don’t degrade the original concept. This most recent version incorporates goals into the map, which helps users understand what a given audience could be working toward.

Diverse colleagues talk in office; empathy mapping concept

What Are the Benefits of Empathy Mapping?

There are multiple benefits of sitting down with your team, stakeholders, and vendors to map out the needs and experiences of your target audience. 

The first benefit is that it forces everyone involved to focus and plan instead of diving right in. “There’s a chance that different stakeholders might jump immediately into what they want out of the product, or they might immediately start talking about constraints, or you might start talking about timelines,” says Jon Tinman, user experience designer at Fuzzy Math. 

“Doing this empathy map as early as possible in the process is the best way to have everybody stop, take a moment and really think about the person you’re designing for.” 

Even if you think your whole team is on the same page and understands the goals of a campaign or project, creating an empathy map can provide a written, visual guide that team members can return to during the whole process. This is why empathy maps are typically developed before any concepts are even considered. 

“Empathy maps are most useful at the beginning of the design process after user research but before requirements and concepting,” writes Jennifer Leigh Brown, SVP and marketing communications director at Fulton Bank. “The mapping process can help synthesize research observations and reveal deeper insights about a user’s needs.” 

Empathy mapping can be used to create audience personas or create a bridge between existing personas and product solutions.  

What Does an Empathy Map Look Like?

While Gray developed a template for an empathy map, you can adjust your mapping for your business or industry. 

Connie Malamed, keynote speaker and author of “Visual Design Solutions,” notes that you will find different versions of empathy maps across the web. However, there is a commonly used template that utilizes multiple rectangles (instead of the original triangles) to take notes. 

There are four quadrants in the main box for what the customer says, thinks, feels and does. Then, in the lower box, there is room for insights and conclusions. This lower box might have different criteria, like “Pains and Gains,” or frustrations and aspirations to better paint a picture of their motives.

To get a better idea of what goes into each box, Sarah Gibbons, chief designer at Nielsen Norman Group, went into detail for what each of the four quadrants means:

  • Says: This refers to words and phrases someone says out loud, either from a media quote, a direct interview or a comment in a focus group.  
  • Thinks: This section covers what the user experiences internally throughout the experience. This may be the same as what they say, but audiences often have thoughts they aren’t willing to vocalize, especially around more sensitive subjects. 
  • Does: What actions does the user take? How do they take these steps? 
  • Feels: How does the user feel about the experience? What worries them or excites them? 

In Gray’s most recent empathy map design, he moved the Think and Feels sections into the head of the user — almost within the same quadrant. The goal is to differentiate what designers actually know based on actions and quotes rather than internal thoughts and feelings, which may be assumed or are less concrete. 

This empathy map can be filled out individually (by one person at their desk) or as a group. However, the map needs to be completed objectively. Lindsay Munro, a social strategist at Adobe, emphasizes the importance of having a moderator at the brainstorming session. This person will help team members fill in gaps and provide an unbiased view of the target audience. 

The moderator:

  • Doesn’t ask leading questions that will frame how people think about the subject or the problems at hand. 
  • Doesn’t express their own opinions and controls their reactions.
  • Makes sure everyone participates.

This objectivity is essential because you (and other stakeholders) will be tempted to add your own beliefs or wishes to the customer experience. This is natural and will occur throughout the whole development process. 

“Taking an active view from the user’s perspective takes tons of practice and consideration,” says Camren Browne, UX/UI tutor at CareerFoundry. “While empathy mapping is a cost-effective and easily transmittable way to create for and cater to the user, it cannot stand alone.” 

Design teams need to use multiple user-centric tools, along with empathy maps, to make sure the target audience or customer stays at the center of the design process and that the customer view doesn’t get skewed or manipulated. 

good of workers gather around a table; empathy mapping concept

Empathy Mapping Outside of Programming and Design

Empathy mapping has long since left the worlds of design and development. While it is still used in those fields, these maps can be found across many industries and have multiple benefits. 

One example is in human resources, whose teams look to improve the employee experience and streamline hiring. “Companies already develop customer personas as part of their marketing plans,” writes Sharlyn Lauby, the HR Bartender. 

“And HR departments create candidate personas as part of their talent acquisition strategy. Why not create an employee persona to help with the development of the employee experience?” 

In journalism, empathy maps help reporters tell better stories by giving them more information and helping them understand the full scope of a story. This prevents tunnel vision in reporting or coming to the wrong conclusions based solely on the data provided.  

“It is often [smaller] stories which lead us to the bigger ones — partly because they enhance your understanding of the field, but perhaps more because they build relationships and contacts, and create a profile and reputation for covering this subject which may lead people to seek you out with more stories,” writes Paul Bradshaw, data journalist and author of the Online Journalism Blog. 

Empathy mapping as a cross-disciplinary tool has become popular because it forces people to check their beliefs at the door. It creates a safe space for executives and employees to admit that they don’t know everything. 

“It’s hard for internal stakeholders of a company to understand the motives of external stakeholders, such as customers,” Swetha Amaresan, social media page for NBCUniversal, writes at HubSpot. “You may be able to make some assumptions, but to get the facts, you have to ask.” 

By admitting that your assumptions aren’t backed up by evidence or facts, you can then take steps to fill in those gaps. 

Empathy Mapping in Content Marketing

Empathy mapping is gaining traction in the worlds of marketing and communication, especially as companies grapple with the sheer amount of data they have and wonder how to use it. 

“As a content strategist, I’ve witnessed our clients become increasingly obsessed with data,” writes Joe Lazauskas, head of marketing at Contently. “… I fail to hear anyone talk about one of the most fundamental aspects of marketing: talking to your customers.” 

Empathy maps help teams step back and consider customers as real people with actual worries and pain points, not just data points that need to be optimized for. 

“Learning more about the emotional needs of the customer will help you deliver better content to them,” says Catherine Goulbourne, senior content manager at Oban International, says. “You’ll be producing content that addresses their fundamental concerns and needs. This helps to cement brand trust from a customer point of view and will help your brand/website gain influence and praise in the long run.”

Empathy maps have also become popular as customer journeys become more complex. Few sales funnels are linear, and many are difficult to map. That’s simply human nature. 

“Human life is rife with examples of cognitive dissonance that make little sense if you think purchase decisions follow the 19th century buyer funnel of attention-interest-desire-action,” says Linda Emma, director of marketing at CloudControlMedia, LLC. “They don’t. Which is all the more reason to really understand what might motivate your users.”

This mapping also pulls marketers away from limited buyer personas, which can box in customers or limit the buyers whom companies market to. 

“One of the most common mistakes when developing audience personas is only focusing on the ideal customer/user,” says Jonathon Hensley, cofounder and CEO at Emerge Interactive. “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.” 

Empathy mapping doesn’t replace sales funnels or audience personas. Instead, it provides assistance to make both more valuable. Sales and marketing teams can avoid tunnel vision by approaching audiences with knowledge and empathy, not just a few data points and end goals.

Empathy mapping can be as useful as you make it. If your maps are filled with assumptions and your brainstorming meetings are done in a rush, then they will be incomplete, flawed and unusable. However, if you take the time to treat your customers like individual human beings, you will have more success with this tool. 

Images by: Wavebreak Media Ltd/©, Aleksandr Davydov/©, sanuas

Amanda Dodge