Empathy Mapping

The Basic Idea

Imagine you are part of a company that is designing a fitness app for seniors. You first find your target population, like Martha, a 70-year-old woman hoping to stay active. To design an app for people like her, your team starts visualizing Martha’s daily routine, the challenges she might face using technology, and her fitness goals.

However, while Martha serves as a specific persona, Empathy Mapping is not solely about individualizing the design process. Instead, it aims to represent a broader pool of users who share similar needs and preferences. Through Empathy Mapping, your team harnesses emotional intelligence to step into not only Martha’s shoes but also the shoes of many users like her. It’s a holistic evaluation of the user's needs to improve the end product, fostering a deeper understanding of user preferences

Empathy Maps are collaborative and visual. To design one, you’ll first want to gather your team and some sort of drawing tools (from sticky notes and pens to a smart screen). Before putting pen to paper, mapping out your thoughts, make sure everyone knows who you are mapping. Who's your ideal user? It’s helpful to name them or create a whole character. This persona should be based on user research and real data as much as possible. It’s also important to know what your main goal is so you can reference it as you create the Empathy Map.

Once all of that is clear, you can start mapping. The original Empathy Map is split into four sections—what they: say, think, do and feel—placing the user in the middle. The updated version includes seven sections.2

Image Source: Empathy Map Worksheet, XPLANE (2021)

GOAL: Write it down so it’s always accessible, what are you looking to achieve through this Empathy Map?

  1. Who are we empathizing with? This section intends to make your target persona explicit so everyone understands their whole context.
  2. What do they need to do? You should reflect on the type of change that they need or want.
  3. What do they see? What is available to them in the market, their environment or their everyday lives?
  4. What do they say? This section contains actual quotes from previous user research you have performed.
  5. What do they do? It should reflect what users physically do with the product or how they interact with the interface. 
  6. What do they hear? This could be from friends, colleagues, news, websites, etc.
  7. What do they think & feel? This should go in the center. After Empathy Maps were updated from four to seven sections, ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ were merged into the central section to create a clear distinction between observable and inferred phenomena. This section also includes a table of “pains” and “gains” to understand your persona or user better.

Once you’ve completed the map, analyze it for insights. It’s normal for some sections to overlap or contradict each other as humans are quite complex. For example, going back to users like Martha, they might feel like the fitness app is a great idea (what they say) but feel intimidated by technology (what they think & feel/what they do). Or maybe, users might value the ability to perform physical activity at home (what they say/what they think & feel), yet also desire social interactions with others who share similar fitness goals (what they say/ what they think & feel).

Naturally, once you’ve narrowed down your findings, the next step is to find solutions or new ideas you want to implement. For example, your team should simplify the app’s interface and introduce community features, to better meet the needs of users like Martha.  By discussing your insights your team can refine your development approach and ensure the app is accessible and engaging for your target population.

Empathy Maps allow for a deep understanding of your user, but they also serve as an explanation to the broader team and stakeholders. Allowing everyone to gain insight as to what they should prioritize in terms of preferences and needs. Encourage open-mindedness and discourage judgment so you really build empathy and make user-centered decisions.

Let’s get inside your head a bit. In fact, let’s climb all the way in.

- Tim May,  Creative Director at XPLANE3

Key Terms

User Experience (UX): UX describes the overall experience a user has when interacting with a product, system, or service. The goal of UX design is to create simple, effective, relevant, and overall enjoyable experiences for the user. UX design considers the why, what, and how of a product from the user's perspective.4

UX Design: The process of designing products, systems, or services with the user's experience in mind. It involves a comprehensive understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their skills, and also their limitations. It also considers the business goals and objectives.4

Persona: In the context of Empathy Maps and UX design, a persona is a semi-fictional character based on user research that represents an important user group. This character is designed considering certain traits, behaviors, goals, and needs that represent a segment of the app or product's target population. Personas help designers and developers visualize and focus on user demands, making design decisions that better serve the target user base.4


The Empathy Map was designed at XPLANE, a design consultancy known for pioneering tools and methods that enhance clarity, understanding, and collaboration in business.5 It was designed to immerse teams deeply in the mindset of their clientele to create solutions and products that are user-centered. It has been used to modify organizational policies, design better work environments, and improve customer experiences.2

As the technique gained popularity, XPLANE modified their template so it would be a step-by-step process that was more intuitive and easy to follow. It now also includes some starter questions for inspiration with hopes of achieving the most accurate outcomes.2


Dave Gray

Founder of XPLANE and creator of Empathy Mapping. Gray introduced many of the standard templates and practices used in modern Empathy Maps. His work has helped make Empathy Mapping a staple in design thinking workshops.5


It’s important to emphasize that an Empathy Map is not a one-time activity. You can always revisit and update the map as you gather more data about your users, especially if they are supported by market research.

Empathy Maps make sure the solutions that are developed address the user’s needs and experiences in addition to a product or strategy that functions. They’re great at categorizing knowledge that might come from qualitative research, finding gaps in your current understanding of the product, and quickly making members of cross-functional teams understand the user holistically.6 They spark innovation and creativity.

Some teams might also consider merging Empathy Maps in order to create Aggregated Empathy Maps which represent a group or segment of users. Personas aren’t replaced but are compared and contrasted in a visual and organized way. It’s a useful way of looking at the bigger picture and understanding how your product works for those who make use of it.7


Despite its benefits, some argue that Empathy Mapping can oversimplify complex human experiences or rely too heavily on assumptions, especially if there’s a lack of qualitative or marketing research. There's a risk of projecting one's biases onto the map, leading to inaccurate representations of the user’s experiences. Although useful it might miss or skip other relevant user research that considers the bigger picture and how it might perform once inside the market.7

Additionally, because humans tend to change their minds quite often, an Empathy Map could end up confusing the designers by having too many options or contrasting thoughts and shift from the main target population or goal. 

Case Study

Nursing needs

Brazil's health policy is big on continuous learning for health workers, aiming to enhance their technical skills and knowledge. A 2022 study took a unique approach by employing Empathy Maps to delve into nurses' needs, frustrations, and expectations regarding their professional development. The study aimed to grasp nurses' perspectives on the educational efforts made by their institutions.

Using Empathy Maps, the study shed light on the nature of educational programs, revealing a focus on routine activities and the exchange of practical knowledge, all aimed at improving patient care. The study also uncovered some challenges: engagement in these programs wasn’t ideal, incentives for participation were lacking, time for training during the busy work schedule was scarce, and there was a noticeable inconsistency in the guidelines provided to the nursing staff.

The takeaway was that Empathy Maps could be a powerful tool in crafting educational programs that resonate more with nurses. By aligning training initiatives more closely with the actual needs and concerns of nursing staff, hospitals and health institutions can foster a more effective and supportive environment for ongoing professional growth.8

Related TDL Content

Turning Empathy Into Innovative Solutions

Dive into how empathy can transform user experience and design, emphasizing its role in creating meaningful, user-centric solutions. This article explores the application of empathy in understanding and addressing the specific needs of users, particularly in the realm of elderly care.

How to create journey mapping to Enhance EX

While bearing similarities to an Empathy Map, this article delves into the nuanced process of journey mapping combined with persona use, aimed at enriching the user experience. It articulates how this distinct method facilitates a deeper empathetic connection with users, enabling the transformation of intricate data into practical insights. 


  1. Mind Tools Content Team. (n.d.). Empathy Mapping: Understanding What Influences Your Stakeholders. Mind Tools. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/abtn3bi/empathy-mapping
  2. Gray, D. (2017, June 13). Updated Empathy Map Canvas. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@davegray/updated-empathy-map-canvas-46df22df3c8a
  3. May, T. (2021, December 2). The Empathy Map: A Human-Centered Tool for Understanding How Your Audience Thinks. XPLANE. https://xplane.com/the-empathy-map-a-human-centered-tool-for-understanding-how-your-audience-thinks/
  4. Interaction Design Foundation. (n.d.). UX Design. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/ux-design
  5. XPLANE. (n.d.). About Us. XPLANE. Retrieved from https://xplane.com/about/
  6. Nielsen Norman Group. (n.d.). Empathy Mapping: The First Step in Design Thinking. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/empathy-mapping/
  7. Dam, R., & Siang, T. (n.d.). Empathy Map – Why and How to Use It. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/empathy-map-why-and-how-to-use-it#what_are_the_benefits_of_empathy_maps?-4
  8. Corrêa, C. E. C., Lopes, G. P., Silva, C. B. da, Paulin, J. N., Oliveira, N. D., Graeff, M. dos S., Lima, A. A. A., & Paz, A. A. (2022). Application of empathy map on educational actions carried out by nursing professionals. Revista Brasileira de Enfermagem, 75(4). https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-7167-2021-0478

About the Author

Mariana Ontañón

Mariana holds a BSc in Pharmaceutical Biological Chemistry and a MSc in Women’s Health. She’s passionate about understanding human behavior in a hollistic way. Mariana combines her knowledge of health sciences with a keen interest in how societal factors influence individual behaviors. Her writing bridges the gap between intricate scientific information and everyday understanding, aiming to foster informed decisions.

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