Research with users produces a lot of information, including two hour-long interviews. We need to make sense of this information in a methodical, productive and insightful way.

It’s important that we understand users as real people, and not just organic life forms that push buttons or swipe screens. Why is it that people do the things they do? What is their motivation, their end goals and how do their thought processes work? Empathy mapping is one of the user research tools we use to answer these tricky, deep and very personal questions.

Making things people want to use

Understanding why people do the things they do helps us design something that the user will want to use and not just need to use. The user will be able to see how the thing they are using will help them meet their end goal, in that way we align it to their motivation.

Inspiring designers

These insights inspire the designers and developers to do a better job.

Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why”, discusses how many leaders and organisations just discuss the “what” and the “how”, and then wonder why they don’t inspire their people or customers to be passionate about their vision, plans, products and services. Explaining why shares your motivations and passion and generates passion in others to do a good job. It helps to build an emotional connection and makes us care.

Mapping empathy

The emotional connection between people is called empathy.  In common speak, empathy is about being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To design for our users, we have to be able to walk a mile in their shoes, even if it’s just vicariously. Here’s a tool for doing this:

The empathy mapping tool (based on a model developed by Dave Gray at XPLANE)


The sections:

Think and feel: the patterns of thoughts, ideas and feelings that the users expressed around a topic.

Say and do: their words and actions which illustrate their motivations and behaviour.

Hear: what they’ve read about the topic and what they were told through media and by healthcare professionals, friends and family, government information campaigns etc.

See: where people were, the objects that surrounded them and what was going on around them. Was it busy, was it calm, were the medical machines and procedures scary, has a particular room or object in their house now become more significant? For example, is an insulin pen seen as being a lifesaver, a ball and chain or a necessary evil for survival.

Pain and gain: the pain points they experienced, the parts of the process that blocked or slowed them achieving their goal, what hindered rather than helped. The gain is the benefits that they, and others, would experience if our service redesign removed those pains and barriers. It’s often the first design insights and design recommendations (or hints at) that we get.

How we do it

We recently used empathy mapping to analyse the data from ten at-home interviews with people who have long-term conditions. The team then listened to the user interviews again and reviewed the notes. We wrote on stickies and placed them in the appropriate section of the empathy map.

As we filled the sections, we started to see links between them. We saw how the thoughts, feelings and actions of the user interact, and how they have fed each other over time. A rich picture quickly emerged.

Three examples:

  1. A person with lung and breathing problems had the hospital, GP, nurse, front-room and supermarket in their “See” section. The supermarket was only visited when they felt confident and well enough to leave the house. In their words “my life, it’s these four walls and the tele”.
  1. A mum with a long term condition was also the carer for the rest of the family (her husband and two children also had health conditions). A telling quote in her “Say” section was “It’s all in a big tin”. Her kitchen was essentially a dispensary with a tin full of the family medications and instructions.
  1. For several users the hearing section had phrases like “I heard nothing”. They had been in denial after diagnosis. The finding here is that for some conditions, such as cancer, information may need to be presented to family and friends and not just the patient. The actions you want the patient to take (arrange tests and appointments) may need to be very clearly specified in bite sized, digestible chunks.

It doesn’t stop there

Once we’ve built our initial maps, these will become artifacts we’ll use throughout the development of our products. We’ll test, iterate and add more maps as we do more research. The team will come back to the maps, at any point, and ask the question “does what I’ve built today work for these people”.

These empathy maps will form the basis of the user sketches that we call personas, which we use to describe the people we’re building things for.   

It’s a team sport

I have analysed qualitative data over many years, doing my first user research interviews with public sector workers grappling with green screen systems in 1988. Historically, analysis has often been a lonely business of staring at pages and pages of transcripts and cutting out snippets to then sort into themes and insights. Pattern of insights (a-ha moments) do eventually emerge but it can feel like a marathon run and often a real slog.

In today’s agile world, we do empathy mapping as a team sport which gets us to these a-ha moments a lot faster and, in contrast, feels like a hundred metre sprint to the finish line.

Leave a comment