Mapping Empathy

As an ethnographer specializing in cultivating empathy, my working materials can be slippery stuffs: circumstances and conditions, beliefs and attitudes. They are hard to see, harder to show to others, and impossible to hold still enough to trace them precisely — because they change, certainly, but also because they are entirely constructed by perceptions. We each have unique minds, hearts and guts, friends. That’s why empathy is even a thing.

Because I practice both direct observation (“fly on the wall” style) and participant observation (“mile in your shoes” style), my end-of-day routine often involves a messy/meticulous process of sorting feelings the way some folks sort the laundry. (Personal feelings over here, researcher feelings over here, ah, and here are some participant feelings… wait, whose feelings are these? Anyone lose a pair of gray heather feelings?) So, just like with the laundry, a few baskets can go a long way.

One of those baskets is something called an Empathy Map. While a handful of variations have been floating around experience design circles for some time, we made this one just for us, to shape our practice and help our team and our clients to better understand others. It’s essentially a checklist, but it does the grunt work of organizing our understanding of another person’s perspective, rather than just going with our collective guts. Not to start any beefs with the intuitives. As one of them myself, I fully respect and understand that, more often than not, a sense of empathy kicks in on its own, no checklist required. But even for those of us with a heart condition as such, the Empathy Map helps reverse engineer what created that sense of earnest understanding in the first place.

The Empathy Map’s secret ingredient is simply the knowledge that a point of view is made from multiple inputs. In other words, it’s not just about how you feel. And in fact, if how you feel is all I’m curious about, I might be able to sympathize with you, but I doubt I’ll be able to design an experience that resonates with you. To do that, I need to know your context — both the long-term and the short-term. On the map, we call those your Climate and Weather, respectively. Typically, they take a while to uncover, but even if time is short, keeping them in mind helps clarify everything else.

And the ‘everything else’ is the fun part. As we consider the research subject’s perspective, we ask what their senses are receiving from the world. What fears and beliefs are they carrying with them? Once we have those in place, we can start to imagine how their sensory inputs are shaped by the inner landscape that receives them. Knowing that can often define for us how their needs and wants came to be what they are. (Or vice versa. This whole story is highly chicken-or-egg.)

Once those are sorted out, there are three fields left: What are they thinking, What are they feeling, and What are they saying. I saved those for last on purpose. Because, while it may seem obvious, I find it important to point out that these are three different things, and interview-style research that solely produces quotes is answering only one of them: what is being said.

Now, I do plenty of interviewing myself, and I know very well how much teams and clients love to hear some verbatims. But if we are only asking what our interviewees think and feel, and not also observing them thinking and feeling, then we are leaving a whole lotta cake on the plate.

I’ll give you an example. A few years back I was interviewing a firefighter about his safety code certification. I asked him why he chose to get certified with organization A instead of organization B. Here’s what he told me:

“Safety. I have to keep my men safe out there. Their lives are on the line.”

Then he added, almost under his breath,

“Besides, [organization A] is the only certification to get. Anything else is a waste of time.”

He said the reason was safety. But the way he said it told me that the motivation for his choice was the credibility of organization A. Because I was both listening and observing, I gathered both that safety and credibility mattered to him… and also that he carries a sense of responsibility for the lives of his team… and also that he maybe has gripes with organization B… which led me to sniff around on the gripes and learn even more important stuff about his climate and weather, too.

In the case of the firefighter:

What are they saying: “I chose to get certified with Org A because safety matters.”
What are they thinking: “Org A is the most credible certification.”
What are they feeling: Responsibility for the lives of my team. Resentment toward Org B for misinformation that put my team in danger.

We use the map to both dissect and piece together another person’s worldview. Mainly, we do this with our research subjects, but they aren’t bad for use in everyday life, too. In the last few months, we’ve used our Empathy Map for lots of things, from helping a client dig into the mindset of their customers, to inspiring a creative team to design a party for their coworkers. Last week, we simply handed them out to a mixed team of agency partners to help them take notes during a customer journey brainstorm. Stay tuned in the next weeks to hear how it turned out!


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