KS&R Blogs


At a usability conference held last fall, I was discussing the importance of "empathy" in UX design during one of the breakout sessions.

Since people often confuse sympathy with empathy, I was relying on Murray (Sesame Street) and Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight, The Avengers) to illustrate the difference between the two in a fun and memorable YouTube video.

The video refused to play.


I stood there -- frozen, frustrated, embarrassed, unsure of what to do next -- until one of the session attendees called out "I feel your pain!"

BINGO! Now that's empathy IRL (in real life) -- the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

Empathy has become a real buzzword in product / service development. It is increasingly recognized as an important soft skill that designers, engineers, marketers, and managers require. Mark Fields, President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, spoke of the criticality of empathy earlier this month as he reported to Fast Company that Ford is becoming as much of a user-experience company as a manufacturing company.

Empathy can be a powerful force in breaking down barriers between you and your customers, and making you more agile in responding to changes in the marketplace. And empathy-based solutions and messaging have been shown to be more creative, relevant, and have greater staying power.

Unfortunately, recognizing and appreciating what customers are going through is not easy in today's global marketplace. And successfully connecting with your target audience is harder than ever before, as they are inundated with email, Facebook posts, and Tweets.

As a result, companies are increasingly turning to qualitative research, ethnographic research, Personas and journey maps to uncover customers' unexpressed feelings / desires, and unmet needs.

An Empathy Map is a qualitative research tool that can help you to do just that. I was first introduced to Empathy Mapping in Game Storming, by Dave Gray et al (I love this "Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers"). Empathy Mapping, a sensory exercise, helps you get inside the head (and heart) of your customers as it zeroes in on them in a specific situation. Empathy Maps are effective because they reveal the underlying "Why" of a situation, and help you uncover unexpected insights -- ensuring that the design / solution meets real needs. If your company has created Personas, Empathy Maps are a great workshop tool as you socialize those Personas and use them to drive innovation.

Here's how Empathy Mapping works:

  • Break workshop participants into teams; assign one Persona to each team.

  • Distribute a large Empathy Map to each team. The Empathy Map is a large sheet of paper that has the Persona (or target user) identified in the middle. Four sections are created around the Persona, including "Think & Feel", "See", "Say & Do" and "Hear".

    • Assign a specific scenario to each team. The workshop facilitator reads the scenario aloud, being sure to convey the emotion of the situation. (An example from a recent study on travel services: Buyer Persona Pragmatic Paul booked a last minute business trip using an online travel agency's brand new mobile app. He is flying across the country for an urgent meeting with prospective clients. Paul arrives at the airport and attempts to check in at the kiosk, only to discover that there is no reservation in his name. And the flight he is supposed to be on is full.)

    • Teams have 15 minutes to complete the Empathy Map. What does the Persona or target customer:
      • Think and feel about the product / service in this scenario? (What is top-of-mind? Most important?)
      • See when using the product / service in this scenario?
      • Say (in public / in private) and do (first thing / second thing)?
      • Hear about your product / service? (From customer support; supervisor / co-workers; clients; other users; friends / family)
      • Experience as a pain point or fear? (In what ways did the product / service fall short / disappoint? What was difficult?)
      • Experience as a positive or gain? (What was easy / enjoyable? What delighted?)

  • Have all teams share their completed Empathy Maps with the larger group. During the presentation, workshop participants will be encouraged to ask questions and share their thoughts in order to enrich and validate the Empathy Maps. Write these (use a different color) directly onto the Empathy Map.

And, just in case your empathetic self is wondering what Murray and Mr. Ruffalo have to say about sympathy v. empathy -- and maybe you'd like to share it with colleagues -- click here.

If it doesn't play, I feel your pain.

All the best,
Lynne Van Dyke