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Want to Build Better Products? Use Empathy Mapping.

Laura Pulido
February 12, 2019

The ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see the world from a different perspective is a critical skill for any product developer. It's also what enables an entire product team to create things that people love to use and share.

This idea is at the heart of everything we do here at Yeti, a UX design agency based in San Francisco. So whenever we partner with companies to create products, strategies, or teams, there's one tool we insist on using: an empathy map.

Empathy mapping is actually more of an exercise than a tool. It is as important to helping us build great products as any piece of hardware or software. It allows us to understand client wants, needs, and motivations in a way that typical interviews can't, and it ultimately helps us develop stronger, more productive relationships with our clients. The empathy map challenges our and our clients' assumptions about a product's ideal users, which helps us to build better products for users.

In fact, two-thirds of consumers expect direct connectivity with brands, suggesting that alignment and a willingness to evolve is more important than ever.

A Primer on Empathy Mapping

It's important that designers and clients collaborate to achieve meaningful results when using empathy mapping.

To begin, the group draws a head and labels each part in terms of how it controls the intake or output of sensory information. Then, the group creates a familiar identity for the drawing based on the characteristics of an ideal user for the new product that is being designed.

Imagine this user in a context that might prompt him or her to think about your product. Using sticky notes, give each team member a few minutes to write down everything the user might be experiencing while using your product, starting with what the user is thinking and working your way through each of the functions.

A facilitator then consolidates the sticky notes and looks for overlaps in responses. This helps identify common themes that could spur the generation of new ideas. The entire empathy-mapping exercise should take no more than 40 minutes to complete. And when done correctly, it can yield some pretty transformative results.

Why Brands Should Pay Attention to Empathy

So why go through this exercise with your team? The answer is simple: Like other human-first approaches, empathy mapping will reward you in the long run.

Here are four ways empathy mapping can benefit your products:

1. It uncovers how users really feel.

The exercise requires you to consider the thoughts that might be going through a use's head — good or bad — at any given moment. It also helps your team pay attention to the circumstances that lead to those thoughts and the effects they have on user behavior.

Research shows that marketing messages tailored to psychological profiles are more likely to resonate. This insight applies to product design as well.

2. It removes bias and subjectivity.

It';s natural to make assumptions about what people want or need from a product based on your own personal experiences. The challenge for designers, in particular, is to put aside personal preferences and think instead about what users want based on their experiences.

Empathy maps help everyone on your team approach design from a user's perspective, and thinking outside the box means you'll create clever solutions.

3. It generates fresh ideas.

Empathy mapping encourages you to consider all the challenges a potential user might be facing. It is also useful in identifying users' largest pain points, or the issues that either cause or worsen all the others.

Focusing your idea generation around solving a single large problem puts you in a position to design something people truly love.

4. It helps you ask better questions.

You should conduct user research long before you begin building, and continuing to gather feedback from users is critical throughout the development process. But in order to collect actionable feedback, you need to ask the right questions.

Creating an empathy map is a great way to discover what matters to your users, and that insight can help you develop questions that move you closer to finding real solutions. Just be sure to update your empathy maps following new research or insights.

At Yeti, the empathy map is one of our favorite and most valuable tools. It allows us to develop a nuanced understanding of the challenges our clients and their customers face, which leads to stellar work and stronger partnerships. If you want to learn more about the tools and processes we use or find out how we can help you tackle your toughest challenges, let's get in touch. We'd be happy to connect.

Laura is a multidisciplinary creative with over 10 years of experience across Product, UI, UX, and CX. As a Product Design Lead, she helps brands build deep and meaningful relationships with their users  through the design process. In her free time Laura enjoys hiking around LA with her pup, turning her home into an indoor jungle, dancing, and cooking traditional Latin American food.

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