Skip to content
Ash RoySep 25, 2022 11:27:07 PM6 min read

Empathy Mapping exercise

Empathy mapping and why it matters in business

Before we talk about why empathy mapping matters, it's worth getting a better understanding of the term and how it relates to business.

I'd like to take a moment to invite you to think about what the word empathy means to you. Here are some useful questions to ponder:

  • How does empathy differ from sympathy?
  • How does it work in a business context?
  • Most importantly why is empathy so important in business?

We'll aim to answer all these questions and more in this blog post. 

Empathy vs sympathy and why empathy matters in product design

According to Miriam-Webster, empathy can be defined as follows:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicitmanner

Put simply, empathy is being able to walk in someone else's shoes. To see the world from another's perspective.

Sounds simple enough, but like most worthwhile pursuits, it's simple but not always easy. 

Miriam-Webster goes on to explain that sympathy is different from empathy in that it implies having the same feelings and sharing (or having the capacity to share) feelings of another. 

Empathy, on the other hand, implies imagining (or having the capacity to imagine) feelings that one does not actually have. 

This ability to project and imagine is particularly important in designing great products and user experiences. 

Empathy is the first step in design thinking for this exact reason. 

The good news is that empathy can be cultivated over time. A great place to start is by creating an empathy map.

Empathy Mapping explained

An empathy map is a collaborative tool that helps you gain a deeper insight into your customer. It goes beyond the traditional ideal customer personal aka customer avatar.

The empathy map was originally created by Dave Gray and aims to examine what the customer is thinking, seeing, feeling, hearing, and doing. It's a framework that works as a great forcing mechanism and enables you to step into your customers' shoes.

A customer avatar looks at the demographic elements of the customer i.e. their age, location, etc — the physical and tangible attributes.

An empathy map takes things a bit further and examines the psychographic elements i.e. what they're feeling, seeing, etc. It enables you to step into your customer's mental world.

In my opinion, an empathy map is a great way to get closer to understanding the customer experience which is why it's the first step in design thinking.

Deeply understanding the customer experience and building products and/or services based on that understanding is crucial if you want to build a great business. 

Here's a story to illustrate that point.

Steve Jobs on Customer experience

Back in 1997, Steve Jobs was asked a very difficult question by a frustrated developer who used OpenDoc and was upset that Apple's decision to cancel its development at a major press conference.

The developer asked him to explain what he'd been doing over the previous seven years (after having been publicly ousted from Apple).

You'd be forgiven for saying it below the belt and was intended to inflict pain by reopening an old wound.

For someone who was sometimes known to have a mercurial temperament, Steve's response was considered and pleasant.

More importantly, his response included a very important message which you can see at the 1-minute and 50-second mark on this video.

Steve said:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience first and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and figure out where to sell it”

In my opinion, this is as true today as it has ever been. Probably more so.
It’s painful to watch businesses create products with little to no insight into the customer, and then shoehorn their products into customers’ lives (often using aggressive marketing strategies).

Slick marketing processes can often mask a poor product and/or a poor customer experience. I’ve seen businesses with great marketing funnels get lazy over time.

This is particularly true in the information product space.

Throwing money at ads that churn their customers through the funnel is a lazy approach, and if the product is subpar, this can cause brand damage over the long term.

In these situations, a slick sales funnel will only accelerate brand damage.

Prioritizing the customer’s needs and the user experience is critical.

Creating great products starts with a deep understanding of the customer’s needs and a thoughtful approach to the user experience.

The word we’re talking about there is Empathy.

Empathy for the customer is the most logical first step to creating a great product (and building a great business). It’s the first step in design thinking and for good reason.

Empathy maps are most useful at the outset of the design process — before coming up with the concept.

The mapping process helps to create something that’s truly customer-facing. Here’s a simple thought experiment to illustrate the importance of empathy and how it plays a practical role in marketing and offer creation.

An Empathy Mapping exercise

Imagine this:
Two companies manufacture and sell washing machines. Let’s call them Company A and Company B.

Company A does a bit of preliminary research and runs focus groups. Based on their findings they conclude that their customers want reliable machines that last a lifetime. The build a marketing campaign focused on the following ideas:

  • "Our machines last a lifetime”
  • “When you buy our machines you’re buying quality — we only use surgical steel”
  • “We are so confident about products that we offer a 10-year on-site warranty”
  • and so on

Company B develops an empathy map and spends time doing deep research on its audience.

They do the traditional market research (including focus groups) but they take things further. They map the various stages of buyer awareness right from when the buyer is problem unaware all the way through to the point where the buyer has purchased the product.
This means for each stage of the buyer’s journey, they ask themselves questions like:

  • What is my customer thinking?
  • What is my customer hearing?
  • What is my customer feeling?
  • What is my customer doing?
  • What is my customer seeing?

This forces them to walk in their customer’s shoes at each stage of the buying process and gives them a unique vantage point.

This is when Company B strikes (marketing) gold

They realize that before buying a washing machine, the customer needs to decide on whether to buy a top loader or a front loader.

And until they can figure out what the difference is they aren’t going to buy a washing machine.

So company B focuses on creating a piece of content on their website that helps the customer understand the difference between front loaders and top loaders.

The piece of content is extremely user-friendly and interactive. Not quite a survey but rather a “choosing framework”.

It’s got sliders and checkboxes to help them easily input their specific situational data such as how many people are in their family, how often they wash, how frequently they wash etc.

At the end of the simple interactive experience, the customer gets a recommendation right there on their screen telling them whether to buy a top loader or a front loader and it recommends one of Company B’s machines.

Who’s more likely to get the sale?

Company A or Company B?

Company B solved a problem that needed to be solved and naturally led to the purchase of the washing machine.

Company B successfully entered the user’s world and approached things from the users’ perspective BEFORE creating a solution.

Empathy-mapping was an effective forcing mechanism to ensure this happened.

Creating customer avatars aka buyer personas is an important first step but empathy-mapping takes things one step further.

Action step:
Use this empathy-mapping approach to see the world from your customer’s perspective. You won’t regret it.


Ash Roy

Ash Roy has spent over 15 years working in the corporate world as a financial and strategic analyst and advisor to large multinational banks and telecommunications companies. He suffered through a CPA in 1997 and completed it despite not liking it at all because he believed it was a valuable skill to have. He sacrificed his personality in the process. In 2004 he finished his MBA (Masters In Business Administration) from the Australian Graduate School of Management and loved it! He scored a distinction (average) and got his personality back too!