Better Problem Solving with Empathy Maps

By Jon Miller Updated on June 22nd, 2020

Maybe things have always been this way. But it seems like we are increasingly shouting at each other rather than working things out. How should we respond to a pandemic? How can we revive the economy? What to do about police brutality? What about climate change? For any large and contentious topic, opposing sides are attacking each other rather than the problem. One side may succeed in force changes on the other side. But unless each side has a taken into account the hopes and fears of the other, negotiated and arrived at a meeting of the minds, changes are rarely long-lasting.

How to Arrive at a Meeting of the Minds

Negotiation, compromise and the writing of law or policy is often what passes for a meeting of the minds. Even when opposing sides make concessions to arrive at an agreement, the outcome can be win-loss. Hard feelings remain. The deeper issues that led to the divide remain unresolved. We sometimes forget that our minds are more than intellect. A meeting of the mind requires shared emotions.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and to imagine the thoughts they’re having. Sometimes we refer to this as “walking a mile in someone’s shoes.” The ability to see things from someone else’s point of view can help us understand the reasons for their actions. This in turn can influence the chance of success for a change over the long-term. But thoughts and feelings are private and invisible. How can we actively sense them if we are not naturally empathetic?

What is an Empathy Mapping?

Empathy mapping is a simple, visual and effective method to develop empathy with another person. We draw a face in the middle of a piece of paper. This may be a photo of an actual person, or a sketch representing a persona from a typical customer segment. In either case, we add details to humanize them such as name, age, location and other demographic or descriptors. We make them real as possible to help us imagine their thoughts and feelings.

We focus on a specific issue, product or service that our persona is engaging with. We start from their outside world and continue to their inner, mental one, asking a series of questions. What do they hear? What do they see? What do they do? What do they say? What do they think? What do they feel? What are their fears or pains? What do they hope to gain? 

We answer these questions based on what we know, assume or have data to support. We place sticky notes in the corresponding section of the map. A completed map gives us insight into reasons for the persona’s behaviors, inconsistencies between words and actions, what we need to do address their fears or help them realize their hopes.

How are Empathy Maps Used in Business?

In business, the Empathy Map is a tool to achieve a specific outcome by visualizing what we know about a customer or user’s thoughts and feelings. These outcomes include uncovering unspoken needs, designing better user interfaces, designing products that solve customer problems, improving user experience, crafting effective communication, selling goods and services, persuading or developing consensus with others, and so forth.

The empathy map is commonly used in support of the Business Model Canvas, Customer Journey Mapping, analyzing a sales process, or for improving a customer experience within a specific process. Empathy Maps can be used any time we want to develop insight and empathy for colleagues, customers or users.

How Can Empathy Maps Help Build Better Societies?

If we accept that mutual understanding results in better problem-solving, and empathy is essential for mutual understanding, it follows that we need our empathy from our leaders, institutions, laws and policies established. We can go as far to say that empathy is a minimum requirement for any leader striving to fulfill the needs of the people they serve.

We build Empathy Maps from what we know, believe or assume about the thoughts, feelings, sights, influences, actions, words, pains and gains of the other person. These are often wrong. Empathy mapping also relies on quantitative data. These may be from through interviews, surveys or other research methods. It requires going out and talking to people. The act of talking to people with the purpose of understanding the other side’s humanity in itself would begin to build better societies.

Humanity vs. the Bots, Trolls and Algos Alliance

In the world today, we face another challenge with regards to building empathy. Enemies of the State, domestic agitators who want conflict rather than consensus, and algorithms of social media firms influence us, without empathy. They manipulate what we hear, what we see, and to an extent how we think and feel about important issues. Their combined effect has been to reduce empathy and increase division.

Despite this daunting alliance, there is hope. Empathy Maps are easy to create and use. They are visual, collaborative. Empathy Maps require observing and talking to real people face to face or on the telephone. We build them by getting away from our screens, turning off the manipulated mess of social media, and listening to other humans. This is labor-intensive work. It requires certain basic skills like making a phone call, that the younger generation raised on social media may need to learn. However, the way we’ll overcome our most serious shared problems is to get the bots, trolls and algorithms out of the way and start connecting as humans.

  1. Michael Bremer

    June 24, 2020 - 10:29 am

    Very good tool Jon. Great to make people more aware of how they might visually display feelings, sensing, perceiving, etc. Using a tool like this can elevate the effectiveness of communications and increase people’s awareness of what others are thinking.

    • Jon Miller

      July 6, 2020 - 3:32 pm

      Thanks Michael

  2. Jeff Fuchs

    July 6, 2020 - 1:53 pm

    Excellent post, Jon!

    I think it is important to underscore a particular sentence above: “Empathy Maps require observing and talking to real people face to face or on the telephone.” This, of course, echoes the “go to gemba” maxim that all Lean Thinkers should follow. A model like this one must be accurate in order to be useful, and not based upon our limited and distorted beliefs and assumptions about other people and why they think and behave as they do.

    As I research this and similar topics more and more, I would also submit that, when developing a map like this, one should not expect that there will be a logical and clear connection between what people see and hear, what they think, what they feel, and what they say and do. Humans have many deeply held core beliefs that are inconsistent with facts and defended by strong emotional barriers. Neil Degrasse-Tyson often points out the distinction between objective truth, political truth, and personal truth. I suspect many empathy maps, if they are accurate, include many “dangling beliefs” that are not consistent with what people see or hear (Cigarette smoking is not a significant health threat to me.) or are closely tied to their self-image or most deeply-held convictions (This policy feels like it conflicts with my Buddhist beliefs. I identify/don’t identify with the Confederate flag.) Value Stream Maps are often messy because the value streams they represent are messy. Empathy maps maps that span into human fears, beliefs and emotions will be messier still. Strap on a helmet!

    Again, thanks for the post!

    • Jon Miller

      July 6, 2020 - 3:34 pm

      Good comments. Another way to put is that the empathy map can help humanize and make sense of the customer behavior data while hinting at underlying factors that data don’t quite capture.

  3. Kevin

    August 13, 2020 - 10:08 am

    Nice article Jon. By any chance do you have a sample that could be leveraged? Thanks in advance.

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