A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking : Building Empathy with Customers

Building Empathy with Customers

How to Empathise? 

Observe - Notice how the customer interacts in their natural environment. During your observation, it is imperative to challenge or disregard your previously held assumptions about your customers. This enables you to uncover hidden truths and also helps you to gain a deeper understanding of how your customers think and feel. In addition, you'll gain insights into their goals, behaviours, beliefs, values, and motivations. This in turn will improve your understanding of why they act the way they do. You'll also uncover unexpected insights that will help you to better empathize with your customers. Finally, by observing your customers, you'll discover information that your customers might not even be aware of. 

Engage - Talk with your customers. Find out what are their preferences, what they dislike, and what's frustrating them. At this stage, I highly recommend contextual interviews, which are very flexible and have been proven to reveal authentic information about your customers. Here's an important point to note, listen to their stories and always ask “Why?” to uncover deeper meaning.

Watch and Listen - Here you can exploit the think-out-loud methodology to identify how the customer interacts with the system or how they complete a task. You can always interrupt your customer to understand the "Whys?" behind their actions. Give a listening ear and document all your observations and findings.

Pay attention - Based on the nature of your business or research, it might be prudent to empathize with a variety of users from a specific demographic or various demographics. You might be wondering why is this necessary? This is important to gain a thorough understanding of different users having various perspectives or experiences so that you do not apply a  generic or “one size fits all” approach to your design. 

Making sense of your data through Empathy Maps - Now that you have gathered all the necessary data relating to your customers' context, you will now transition to analyzing and synthesizing your data.  

To make sense of your data, I wholeheartedly recommend the use of Empathy Maps developed by the founder of XPLANE, Dave Gray and Alex Osterwalder. In this way, you can visualize the customers' attitudes and behaviours, and ultimately, gain a deeper level of understanding of your customers, develop empathy for them, and point out the gaps/ambiguities in your research. Before we proceed to how the empathy map works, let's first define it.

Understanding Customers through Empathy Maps

An empathy map is defined by Sarah Gibbons as follows. 

“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.” 

Here's how it works as described by David Gray.

Updated Empathy Map Canvas ©2017 David Gray
Photo credit: David Gray, Gamestorming, Empathy Map Canvas, http://gamestorming.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Empathy-Map-006-PNG.png

From the empathy Map Canvas, we can see that the process is customer-driven and -centered. Basically, the empathy map categorizes who your customers are, what they need to do, what they see, say, hear, and what they're doing and feeling. It's pretty flexible and straightforward and can be constructed in approximately  20 minutes. An empathy map can be printed or sketched on a large piece of paper or whiteboard. You'll definitely need your markers and coloured post-its for this exercise. Feel free to do an empathy map for each persona and do a couple of iterations to deepen your insights.

Start by gathering your team members, bringing all your qualitative data, personas, and all the insights you've formulated from your user research. Then you'll need to define the goal and scope of this exercise. For example, you'll want to specify the following as inspired by this article

  1. Your expectations of what you want to learn from the empathy map.
  2. Who you're creating the empathy map for? Is it for a specific user?
  3. What do you want to learn from this empathy map exercise?
  4. How does it fit into the bigger piece of the picture as it relates to your project?

Remember, the overarching goal in this process is to empathize with and understand your customer. From the empathy map above, we can infer that it is comprised of seven key areas, which are described below.

1. Who are your Customers?

In this section, you're trying to understand and empathize with the persons you're designing for. In fact, you're trying to understand their situation and identify their role.

2. What do they NEED to Do?

You're now trying to identify the various tasks that your customers need to accomplish. You want to know what your customers need to do differently and what decisions they need to make in order to accomplish their tasks. You'll definitely want to capture what success looks like for your customers. How is your product or service going to change their lives?

3. What are they SEEING?

Again, here you're diving deeper into the customers' perspective. You'll gain more insights into their interactions with the product/service in their context of use. You might want to explore, the following.

  • What is your customer encountering in their natural environment?
  • Who and what are they exposed to?
  • How are they interacting with other people and things in their environment?
  • What's their perception of what others are saying and doing?
  • What are they watching and reading?

4. What are they SAYING?

This section includes the direct quotations you've gathered from your user study. You'll also want to note what your customer is saying while using your product/service. Possible quotes may include. 

 “I am not sure what's the purpose of this feature.” “I need something that's easy to use.” “It should be efficient!”

5. What are they DOING?

 Here you'll want to consider what your customer is physically doing while interacting with your product or service. For example, he/she is uncertain how to navigate to the next step on a website and keeps going backward instead of forward.

 You'll also want to assess if your customers behave differently in public or in private situations. For example, formerly a female customer posted regularly on TikTok. However, she was recently enlightened about the privacy issues surrounding the app. Accordingly, she publicly denounces the use of the app and stops posting but secretly watches other people's videos.

6. What are they HEARING?

This section describes what the customer is hearing and how it influences their interaction with the product of service. You'll want to pay attention to your customers' response to what others (e.g., family, friends, social media influencers, researchers, educators, and industry experts, etc.) are saying and note how they respond to these claims about the product or service. Go deeper into how this makes them feel.

Examine if they're searching for product reviews on social media, YouTube, blogs, Instagram, Facebook etc. 

7. What are they THINKING and FEELING?

This section captures what the customer is thinking and feeling throughout their experience with a product or service.  Here you'll need to be on the lookout for what the customer chooses not to articulate. This may include their Pains (i.e., their fears, frustrations, reservations, concerns, and anxieties) with respect to your product or service. You'll also want to examine why they are reluctant to articulate their feelings. 

Here are a few example quotes.

It's difficult to understand how to use this.” “It's too confusing!”

“Why does the page take so long to load?” “Am I doing something wrong?”

Also, examine their Gains (i.e., their wants, needs, hopes, and dreams) with respect to your product or service. For example, your customer expresses the following.

It would be nice to have a brighter colour  as this is quite boring!

“This is fun!” or "I really like it!"

Customer Journey Maps

You may also use a journey map to gain empathy for your customers through their experiences. According to Stanford d.school, it's an excellent tool to “systematically think about the steps or milestones of a process.”

In creating your journey map, you'll need to capture and identify multiple observations of your customer e.g., how they interact with your product or service or the timeline of events and routines in a customer's day. You can create a journey map from your observations and insights or you can ask your customer to illustrate a map of their routines and explain it to you.  

Making Sense of your User Research Data 

Once you have completed your empathy and/or journey maps, you should take a moment along with your team members to analyze and reflect on your findings. You'll want to document and visualize the new insights and perspectives garnered from the empathy map exercise and note the inferences and conclusions you've formed about the data. Your coloured markers and post-its will be very valuable in the analysis phase. Be sure to take as many pictures of the process and final results as you can as this will be handy for the future steps of the design thinking process. 

Reflect, Analyze, Synthesize, and Define 

Once you have completed the empathy map and/or customer journey map exercise, you should take a moment along with your team members to analyze and reflect upon your findings. You'll want to document and visualize the new insights and perspectives garnered from the empathy map exercise and note the inferences and conclusions you've formed about the data. Your coloured markers and post-its will be very valuable in the analysis phase. Be sure to take as many pictures of the process and final results as you can as this will be handy for the future steps of the design thinking process. 

Let's get ready to move on to the DEFINE Stage. Now that you have gained significant insights from your customers, you'll now ready to bring more clarity to your project. You've already started to gather all your insights from your user research and empathy maps exercise, so it's time to bring more clarity to your project 

Additional Resources

  1. https://web.archive.org/web/20201023155329/https://dschool-old.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/3d994/empathy_map.html
  2. https://s3.xopic.de/openhpi-public/courses/1NcWQVnyTA0dLYw9kHLs4e/rtfiles/35m0Q8qXYjvHO7FHuwgVgg/bootcampbootleg2010.pdf
  3. Feel free to watch the video below too!

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A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking
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Kadian Davis-Owusu (PhD)
Kadian has a background in Computer Science and pursued her PhD and post-doctoral studies in the fields of Design for Social Interaction and Design for Health. She has taught a number of interaction design courses at the university level including the University of the West Indies, the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC) in Jamaica, and the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. Kadian also serves as the Founder and Lead UX Designer for TeachSomebody and is the host of the ExpertsConnect video podcast. In this function, Kadian serves to bridge the learning gap by delivering high-quality content tailored to meet your learning needs. Moreover, through expert collaboration, top-quality experts are equipped with a unique channel to create public awareness and establish thought leadership in their related domains.... Show more