If I were to ask you what you thought empathy was, your answer would probably be something like “independently feeling the feelings of other people” and you wouldn’t be completely wrong, but you’d also be missing a large part of what empathy means.
I often find myself over explaining concepts and terms so I like Greater Good’s definition of empathy to do the explaining for me,
“Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.”
To summarize, at its core empathy is being able to recognize and reciprocate the feelings of others. This is a great practice to exercise in your day to day life, and I think we could all use a bit more empathic thinking these days, but is also something incredibly important in user experience design.
User experience design utilities empathy through the use of empathy maps. What’s an empathy map? Take it away NNgroup,
“An empathy map is 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.”
Empathy maps are used to get to the real problem a user might be experiencing or used to improve the overall design. While often times the user might think they know the problem, it’s usually something entirely different that can be deduced through empathy mapping.
Let’s look at an example of empathy mapping, I like the one from Culture Connect Me:
The empathy prompt is as follows: A parent bringing their child for a visit to a history museum that is creating in-gallery touchscreen interactives for an upcoming exhibition.
The museum used empathy mapping to record and learn from her experience:
Based on this empathy map alone there are several ways the museum can interpret this data. For one they can interpret he focus on her son as a sign that they need to shorten the labels at the exhibit so people can understand what they’re doing in a shorter amount of time. They can also interpret her long line frustration and thinking of wishing she could have solo access as a sign the museum should open up more interactive elements to eliminate lines and offer more to do.
As a result of empathy mapping the history museum can solve problems and improve their user’s experience in ways they would have never considered. Empathy mapping is a great way to step into the shoes of somebody else and create a proactive solution to problems you might not have realized even existed. Try using empathic thinking in your next user driven product test and you might be surprised with what you find out!