Empathy maps

Empathy maps help your team visualize and empathize with your user’s needs. Through the simple act of considering what a user feels, thinks, says, and does, teams can make great strides in efficiency.

What are empathy maps?

Empathy maps are a visualization of knowledge about your users.

They’re created by organizations and teams through group exercises: The goal is for each contributor to gain insights into users’ motivations and empathize with their frustrations.

While there are many ways to create empathy maps, they typically include what the user feels, thinks, says, and does.

First brought to the masses by Dave Gray’s Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, empathy maps have become a popular, widely used tool in the product development process. This is largely due to their effectiveness in aligning companies around user needs, and exposing all team members to valuable user data.

The many benefits of empathy maps

Empathizing with users and understanding their needs is the key to a successful product. Traditionally, this has been especially important for design and product teams, but engineering and other teams can also benefit. Creating this shared comprehension of users is where empathy maps come in.

By examining already existing qualitative data and making new data points on empathy maps, teams are able to:

  • Gain insights into what users need vs. what they say they need
  • Understand what motivates user behavior and emotions
  • Determine which direction a product should go
  • Make new user personas or update existing ones
  • See flaws in assumptions and align as a team

How to conduct an empathy map exercise

Before you begin, there are a few foundational steps you’ll want to complete. Some things to have defined and ready before meeting your team are the Outcome, the Users, Resources, and the Little Things.

The Outcome: What is your goal?

Empathy maps can accomplish a lot but require focus. To help streamline this, you should always define your desired outcome, and communicate it clearly to the team. For example:

  • Our goal will be getting the team aligned about user needs.
  • We’ll be analyzing our newest round of user testing to understand user drop-off.

The Users: Who will we be examining?

Clarifying the users or group of users you’re seeking to examine is key to getting the results you want. You can use a specific user, a demographic of users, or an existing user persona, as long as its well-defined and explained to the team. For example:

  • We’ll be making empathy maps for the personas of “Bargain Shopper Lida” and “Full-Price Dan.”
  • Recently we completed several interviews. We’ll be creating empathy maps for each one of these four interviewees.

Man and woman looking at colorful adhensive notes on whiteboard in creative studio

Resources: What does the team need?

Make sure to provide your team with the necessary materials to be successful before and during the exercise. If there’s a lot to cover and the team is unfamiliar with the research material, it might be worthwhile to summarize and review thoroughly with everyone before starting the exercise. If relevant, interview transcripts and links to video recordings are also helpful.

The Little Things: What do you need to help your team be successful?

Little things like running out of pens, not having enough handouts, or starting late can derail the entire exercise. Make sure you think of things like:

  • Does the time work for the whole team?
  • Does the room have a white board, working projector, etc.?
  • Do we have a set amount of time for each part of the exercise?

What goes into an empathy map

The information used to create empathy maps typically comes from a team analyzation of previous collected user research such as voice recordings, interview transcripts, videos, and usability studies.

Empathy maps have taken many different forms over the years, such as persona empathy mapping and even an updated empathy map from the aforementioned Mr. Gray. Most modern empathy maps include some form of what a user says, thinks, does, and feels.


What users say is most often gathered from interviews, direct feedback, or usability studies. These may not always be clean statements with perfect grammar, but it’s most useful to try and use direct quotes.

  • “I want something quick and simple.”
  • “How do I use search?”


Try to imagine what the users were thinking when using your product, keeping in mind that things like shyness and politeness might have kept them from saying it out loud. It’s alright to make educated guesses here. If you have video, try to read body language or facial expressions. In some cases, they may have said exactly what they were thinking.

  • “Why is this taking so long?”
  • “I don’t understand why I can’t do it this way.”


This section is easiest to gather by looking at how they’re using your product, prototype, or other stand-in. Physical observations are best, but analytics can also be helpful.

  • Taps Send continuously while waiting for results to show.
  • Scrolled from the top of the page to the bottom before clicking anything.


Recording what the user is feeling can take a number of forms. Like thinking, if a user hasn’t specifically said how they feel, it’s okay to make an assumption based on their behavior. It can be short descriptions, a single adjective, a combination of both, or anything else that expresses their emotions.

  • Frustrated.
  • Overwhelmed: Too many options to choose from.
  • Uneasy about making a purchase.

Putting your observations into an empathy map

While there are many different empathy map formats, all of them are built from a group effort.

It’s best to use a whiteboard, sticky notes, paper handouts, or some other tangible method that allows the whole team to chip in, see progress, and easily share the results. NNgroup has a good template, and Solution IQ has one that can be used with a distributed team.

After selecting the most appropriate format and template, gather your team and have them begin populating each field based on the research they’re analyzing.

Once everyone has distributed their data, review it as a team and discuss common threads, similarities, and any other interesting points. If you can, group similar data points within their respective data field. Once you’ve collected and reviewed the data from the team, decide if the exercise completed the Outcome.

Empathy map on the wall

If it’s complete, the results should be digitized and shared.

If not, it may be necessary to:

  • Break up the fields into something more specific to your needs.
  • Revisit what research was used.
  • Schedule another time to complete the goal.

While the processes and requirements of an empathy map can seem intimidating, their primary purpose is to help your team visualize and put your user’s needs first. Empathy often leads to a well-served user base—and a better business.

Solve user problems as a team

Developing empathy for customers is a key part of the product design workflow, but brainstorming and managing inspiration can be challenging, especially with teams.

Help your team better understand the needs of your users by brainstorming solutions on a digital whiteboard. InVision Freehand and Boards allow your team to collaborate on empathy maps, create wireframes, and gather design inspiration. Sketch out your own thoughts, add your feedback to someone else’s ideas—either way, you’re working together in real time and pushing your project forward.

Now that you know, use that new knowledge and collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard

Transformative collaboration for all the work you do