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Empathy maps in UX design

How to use empathy maps for UX design

What is empathy, exactly?

Simply put, empathy is the ability or capacity to understand or feel how others experience the world. It’s central to human-centred design because when we empathise with others, we’re trying to understand how they’re experiencing some aspect of the world. In the context of UX design, that insight into what users are doing, seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling informs the development of user experiences. 

In UX, empathy enables us to understand not only our users’ immediate frustrations, but also their hopes, fears, abilities, limitations, reasoning, and goals. It allows us to dig deep into our understanding of the user and create solutions that will not only solve a need, but effectively improve our users’ lives by removing unnecessary pain or friction. – Sarah Gibbons, Chief Designer at Nielsen Norman Group (2019) [1]

Empathy is important because the best possible experiences are designed with human users in mind. So, how can we learn to empathise better with users and customers?

Empathy maps

Empathy is key to human-centred design. However, UX designers need something more visual than the mere concept of empathy to help them optimise the user experience. What they use is an empathy map. 

Empathy map showing sections for Think, Feel, Say, Do, Pain and Gain

Click to enlarge

An empathy map is ‘a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user’. [2] There are a few variations, but empathy maps are generally composed of four quadrants relating to what users say, think, do, feel, as well as their ‘pains’ and ‘gains’ (i.e. what challenges users face and what’s working for them).

Let’s take a look at each one of the four main quadrants with examples.

1. Saying

What are users saying about their experience with your product or service? This information can come from research interviews, studies, or even what’s communicated to others in person or online. For example, a meditation app user might say, ‘I love using Waking Up as my meditation app because of how easy it is to use’ or ‘Headspace keeps on crashing mid-session’. 

2. Thinking

What are users thinking when they’re signing up, trying to get a refund or want to share some piece of content related to your products? In other words, what’s going through their heads at specific points in their user journey? For example, a meditation app user wants to send a friend a subscription as a gift but may think, ‘Why is this so difficult? So many clicks just to send someone a gift!’ or ‘Wow, this process is so easy. I may give a few more subscriptions now!’. 

3. Doing

What are the users physically doing? How are they interacting or engaging with your product/service? For example, a meditation app user might opt in to receive the app’s monthly newsletter, press pause on the guided meditation halfway through, or share their progress on social media.

4. Feeling

What is the user feeling throughout their experience? For example, a meditation app user could be feeling excited because they finally committed to signing up for a subscription, worried because the page where they have to enter their credit card information keeps crashing, or overwhelmed because of too many daily reminders to meditate.

Empathy map showing a positive experience in a bookshop.

Click to enlarge

Empathy is important in UX design because the best possible experiences are developed with human users in mind. Empathy maps are a useful tool because they create a shared understanding of the user and their needs and assist in design decision-making. [2]

Over to you

Take another look at the empathy map above and see whether you can track your own experience as a user with the most recent product or service you signed up for. 

What are your biggest pains and gains? What did you say, think, do, and feel before, during, and after your purchase?

Next, you’ll create and complete your own empathy map!


  1. Gibbons S. Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX [Internet]. Nielsen Norman Group; 2019 April 12. Available from:
  2. Gibbons S. Empathy Mapping: The First Step in Design Thinking [Internet]. Nielsen Norman Group; 2018 Jan 14. Available from:
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