Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head

two men sitting on a bench outside a diner, a woman leans against a wall next to them

Jack Ungulate is a strange bird.

When he drinks beer, he licks his index and middle finger, swipes the bottle opening, and then pauses, with the bottle raised to his mouth, before turning it upside down.

Each time, every time.

He also has a routine with his steel-toe boots. The left one must go on first, then the right. But he takes them off in reverse.

And then there’s his ritual when buying large ticket items like a car: he sends his wife to the lot while he sits in the garage, waiting for her to call.

When people talk to him about saving for his children’s college fund, he quickly cuts them off to inform them there is no fund because he’d prefer to cultivate a sense of ownership by encouraging them to pay their own way through school.

He enjoys the scowls that appear on their faces.

As he methodically replaces a defective steam gauge on a heating system, he thinks about his father and why they never talk. Then he contemplates how he’s going to break it to his own son that he won’t be able to make it to his kayak competition that evening because he has to cover a co-worker’s night shift.

The overtime, however, will go towards their trip to Cancun in April. That should ease the sting.

Clearly, Jack is not so much strange as he is just complex. Like most humans. And all of your customers.

How well do you know your customers?

Where product development should start

We all need to know our customers in order to create products they’ll actually buy. This is why the minimum viable audience idea is so powerful.

It doesn’t start with the product. It starts with the customer.

That means the media you create — the daily podcast, weekly Hangouts, the monthly downloads — all contribute to attracting an audience. As that audience grows, you learn their needs, wants, hopes, and fears.

That information allows you to build a worldview of your customer. And when you confirm that worldview in your media, it allows you to sell products they actually want to buy.

Think of the Theodore Roosevelt quote:

Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

Empathy is your goal.

What is empathy?

Empathy consists of two parts:

  1. The intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
  2. The vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.

Keep in mind, while they are close cousins, empathy is not sympathy.

Jesse Prinz, Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, writes, “… sympathy is a third-person emotional response, whereas empathy involves putting oneself in another person’s shoes.”

Sympathy is a toddler who offers his blanket to another toddler crying. Sympathy is a nurse flying to Haiti at her own expense to aid earthquake victims. Sympathy, as the dictionary puts it, “is sorrow or pity for another’s misfortune or suffering.”

Empathy, on the other hand, is knowing how it feels to be obsessive (like Jack in the opening story). It is knowing how it feels to worry about salespeople taking advantage of you. And it is knowing how it feels to have to tell your son — yet again — you have to miss a very important baseball game because of work.

Here’s a personal example.


I’ve lost two fathers in my lifetime: my stepfather through a climbing accident and my biological father through a failed battle with lung cancer.

Therefore, when I bump into people who’ve lost their father — whether family, friends, or strangers — I can identify with their pain.

The word “empathy” is only about 100 years old. However, our notions of empathy were previously associated with “sympathy.”

Prinz tells us that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, said this about sympathy:

Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator.

In other words, Prinz adds, “Empathy requires a kind of emotional mimicry … Empathy is a kind of vicarious emotion: it’s feeling what one takes another person to be feeling.”

To state it another way, this time quoting copywriter Aaron Orendorff, it’s about entering the conversation that is already going on in a person’s heart.

The advertisers who translate these feelings into content and advertisements will advertise effectively … without seeming to actually advertise anything at all.

When advertisers empathize effectively

You’ve seen empathy in advertising. They are the commercials that make you smile or cry. They are the ads that pull your heartstrings.

In his article “Empathy Sells,” Grant Tudor (strategic planner at Ogilvy & Mather), shares two recent commercials to prove this point.

Take this one from Procter & Gamble.

It’s an ode to mothers and the relentless, instinctual, and sacrificial hard work they put in for their children. Procter & Gamble says, “Mothers, we understand you.”

Watch this video by Google, this time, for dads:

It’s all about a father recording his emotional connection — the pride and joy and humility fatherhood generates — with his daughter through technology.

By the way, these two short ads have something in common. Did you notice it? If not, here it is: indirect selling.

In the case of Procter & Gamble, the end of the commercial shows a quick sequence of product logos. With Google, the product is part of the narrative.

Naturally you have to ask, does this approach work? Yes, it does.

According to an extensive 2007 case study analysis by the World Advertising Research Center, emotional ads outsell informational ones by 19 percent.

The only problem is that you, as a business owner, don’t have the time or ability to experience your customers’ thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. So, you must learn how to experience these qualities another way: research.

Introducing the empathy map

Empathy maps emerged out of the web design user experience world in its attempt to empathize with users. As Dr. James Patell of Stanford d.school told CNN:

One of the founding tenets of the d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) is human-centered design. Rather than beginning with shiny new technology, we start by trying to establish deep, personal empathy with our users to determine their needs and wants. We must fill in two blanks: Our users need a better way to ___ BECAUSE ___. The because portion is a big deal.

Burn this into your memory: “Our users need a better way to ____ BECAUSE ____.”

David Gray, author of The Connected Company and Gamestorming, is the man behind the empathy map. He told me in an email, “The Empathy Map was developed as part of the consulting approach we took at XPLANE, the company I founded. As I recall, it was developed in the context of some work we did with Caterpillar.”

Empathy maps vary in shapes and sizes, but there are basic elements common to each one:

  • Four quadrants broken into “Thinking,” “Seeing,” “Doing,” and “Feeling.”
  • Covered in sticky notes

Some versions have two additional boxes at the bottom of the quadrants: “Pains” and “Gains.” A drawing of a human head at the center of the empathy map reminds us we are talking about a real, live person.


To get started, download and print a large version of the empathy map above here.

Empathy map session basics

Identify who should help you build an empathy map. Here are some key people to invite:

  • You
  • Stakeholders
  • Customer support leads
  • Vendors
  • Product developers
  • Salespeople
  • Copywriters

And here are items (if you have them) to bring to the session:

  • Large empathy map
  • A mix of colored sticky notes
  • Dry erase marketers
  • White board
  • Personas
  • Worldview descriptions
  • Data from user interviews
  • Testimonials
  • Insights from your web analytics (related to customer actions)
  • Social media mentions
  • Your marketing story

If it helps, at the bottom of the empathy map, draw two boxes: “Pains” and “Gains.”

In the “Pains box,” you can put your customers’ challenges and obstacles. Ask, “What keeps my customer up at night?”

In the “Gains” box, include the goals your customers hope to accomplish. Ask, “What motivates my customer to get up in the morning?” and “What are her hopes and dreams?”

Make sense?

Do this during your session

When everyone is ready, you, as the moderator, should ask questions like:

  • How do they think about their fears and hopes?
  • What do they hear when other people use your product?
  • What do they see when they use your product? What is the environment?
  • What do they say or feel when using your product, whether in private or public?
  • What are their pain points when using your product?
  • Is this a positive or a painful experience for them?
  • What does a typical day look like in their world?
  • Do they hear positive feedback about your company from external sources?
  • What do they hope to gain from using your product?
  • Has your customer repeated quotes or defining words?

Encourage your empathy map group to jot down needs and insights that emerge as you work through this exercise, then paste those notes in the proper boxes on the large empathy map.

The process takes a bit of role playing. Don’t be afraid.

Summarize the session

At the end of the session, encourage team members to share their thoughts about the exercise and the customer. Do they have a new hypothesis? Have they identified obvious needs and new behaviors? What insights have they gained?

Once you are finished, summarize your conclusions. Organize these thoughts, feelings, actions, and sayings into a summary about what you’ve learned.

In the meantime, hang the empathy map and all the notes in an area of your office where people pass or congregate. Invite people to add ideas to the map. If you work remotely, create a shared document and send out reminders regularly to encourage people to add ideas.

By the way, if you don’t have personas or worldview descriptions for your customers, don’t worry. You can still perform this exercise without those. In fact, it may help inform those other descriptors.

What we need is more research

You may think such detailed work is overwhelming. You need personas, worldviews, and now empathy maps. Really? That’s enough to make your head spin.

Trust me, this is not research overkill.

Some work may overlap, but none of it will go to waste. In fact, research will help you define and redefine your customer over time. And you can never know too much about your customer.

You need to perform more research. That’s how you crawl into your customer’s head.


Your turn …

Or course, there is more than one way to research your customers, and an empathy map is just one of many.

What other methods have you used? Let’s continue the discussion on Google+.

In some cases, you can develop empathy for your customers by inserting yourself in their lives for several days, weeks, or months. Or you could simply be your ideal customer.

Some of the best marketing comes from products created by people who are their ideal prospect.

For example, at Copyblogger, just about everybody who works here is an ideal customer. In fact, many of us were consumers of the content and products before we joined the team.

More importantly, the engine for all of our products revolves around trying to solve issues we run up against. This is Brian Clark’s story, starting back when he practiced law in the 90s and continuing now with the Rainmaker Platform.

We try to solve the very issues you’re dealing with because we empathize. We’ve been there, and are there, every day.

That’s why we put together our New Rainmaker course — a two-week free training opportunity that will teach you how to create the kind of media that your customers will love. Learn more here.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Ryan Vaarsi.

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