Assumption is your worst enemy in human-centered design. During the design process, one of the biggest mistakes is fail to consider a user’s feelings, wants and needs. In order to succeed, you must get inside the user’s head and empathize.

The first step in the design-thinking process that we’ve discussed in previous posts, is Empathize.

Empathy: “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 explicit manner”

Merriam Webster Dictionary

Understanding the way your user feels is the key to designing something that will be the most useful to them. As designers, we have our own bias on the way we believe would be the best way to present information or build a product and we often let that get in the way of our success. Empathy tells us to leave what we think behind and observe our user by watching and listening to what they have to say.

A great way to discover what’s inside a user’s mind is using a tool called an empathy map. The Neilson Norman Group defines it as “a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) aid in decision making” (Gibbons, 2018). Generally, this map is made up of four quadrants (what a user says, does, thinks and feels) with the person or user placed in the center. Each observation you make about a user can be categorized into one of these quadrants. These tidbits of information can be pulled from interviews or other usability studies conducted during the research phase.

Creating an Empathy Map

Before you begin writing in your four quadrants, it is important to first identify your user. Who is it that you are learning about? Next, establish an end goal. What do you want the desired outcome of this workshop to be? This will help you focus only on the observations that will help you achieve success and narrow your focus.

Now, record your observations.


These are typically direct quotes taken from the user. It can include any observation they may have made. Examples include “I am looking for an easy experience” or “I have a tendency to purchase American-made cars”.


This records any note-able tasks a user may complete. These can be things such as Looked for the customer service tab or Clicked the link multiple times.


This is what is going through your user’s mind while they’re using your product or service. Although this may be hard to differentiate from how your user is saying, the most important thing is that you record it on your mind map, not where it is categorized. Good examples of what your user may be thinking is “Wow! That was really interesting” or “This task is taking way too long”.


How does your product or service make your user feel? You can find this out by observing their body language, facial expressions or by what they say or don’t say. Usually, this is best formatted by stating the feeling the user is experiencing followed by context. For example: Flustered: did not know where to begin with the site or Confident: knew how to operate the product.

Empathy maps are also flexible. They can be changed or adapted as your research continues. Any other new thought can be recorded at any time.

An Effective and Easy Way to Get to Know Your User

Now that you’ve completed your map, you can get a full picture of who your user is. Now, you can use one mind map to learn about a particular individual or use combine multiple users to help you recognize themes among a group. All your information is displayed in a great visual for your whole team to have easy access to all the most important information. Not everyone working on a solution is involved in the research phase, so it may be tough for them to empathize with the user. This map can be a great tool for those who needs to be educated about the user they are designing for.

Brown, Jennifer Leigh. “Empathy Mapping: A Guide to Getting Inside a User’s Head: UX Booth.” Empathy Mapping: A Guide to Getting Inside a User’s Head | UX Booth,

Dam, Rikke Friis, and Teo Yu Siang. “Design Thinking: Getting Started with Empathy.” The Interaction Design Foundation,

“Empathy.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

Gibbons, Sarah. “Empathy Mapping: The First Step in Design Thinking.” Nielsen Norman Group,

Stevens, Emily. “What Is Empathy In Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Guide To Building Empathy For Your Users.” What Is Empathy In Design Thinking? And Why Is It Important?, CareerFoundry, 22 Nov. 2018,

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