Design Thinking Toolkit, Activity 25 – Empathy Map

Y’all ready to get your empathy on? I know I am. This empathy map activity will have you walking, talking, and thinking like your research subjects.

Primary Goal To understand how a user might think, feel, speak, and act in regards to a specific goal or topic.
When to Use When trying to create empathy for a subject
Time Required 20-40 minutes
Number of Participants 1-10+
Who Should Participate? Any members of the team
Supplies Whiteboard, PostIt notes, Sharpies, Activity Template (see below)

When designing a solution for a certain set of people, it’s important to understand how they might feel, think, talk about, or act in certain situations or in reaction to a solution. This activity is great for breaking down assumptions and for synthesizing user research. It places the project team firmly in the shoes of the research subject and forces them to really dive into their surrounding internal and external world.

In short, an Empathy Map is a quickly-created visual that helps us get inside the head of a research subject or persona and learn about their behaviors and actions.

I’ve modified this activity slightly to include a fifth segment — “sees/environment” — when there are typically only four: says, does, thinks, feels. I find this particularly important because it helps teams understand the places the subject lives, works, or generally inhabits. For example, is someone in a hot or cold location? Is it noisy or quiet? Bright or dark? Is it filled with people? Or are they alone? These factors can influence the next steps in solving your problem statement.


To begin, find a large open whiteboard and draw the following empathy map sections upon it:

Now fill in the “Who” portion of the map and define the “Goal or Subject.”

Examples of this could be:

Who: Bus Drivers
Goal: Reducing Passenger Accidents

Who: Nurses
Subject: Taking a Lunch Break

You can create as many empathy maps as needed per persona type. Finally, have Post-it notes and Sharpies ready for each participant.

Segment definitions are as follows:

Sees – list any environmental factors or qualities of the subject’s space. This could include but is not limited to things like climate, location, noise level, items they would see in the space, lighting, etc.
Says – list anything the subject would say out loud regarding the subject.
Does – list any type of action or behavior the subject might do in the context of the problem space.
Thinks – list anything the subject might think to themselves while experiencing the problem space.
Feels – list any type of feeling the subject might have regarding the situation.

It’s important to note that sometimes a subject will say one thing and completely think another. Or, their actions (“does”) might not match their feelings, etc. This is common human behavior, and it’s important to note how these contradictions might impact your solutions to follow.

Running the Activity

First, introduce the activity to the participants, describe “Who” the research subject is, and define the “Goal or Subject.”

Running clockwise around the canvas, have each participant add Post-its into each segment. They can add as many Post-its per segment as they like, but ensure that there is one thought only per Post-it.

Once all the segments are full of observations and thoughts, go through each segment one by one and have participants read their Post-its aloud. After the activity is done, you can Affinity Map similar thoughts to find interesting patterns, features, or observations.

An example of a completed map might look like this:

empathy map

Send us a picture of your Empathy Map, and let us know in the comments what surprised you while running this activity.

This activity was originally developed by XPLANE.

Atomic’s Design Thinking Toolkit


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