It’s a damn fine question because on the surface of it they seem similar. They both help you create a description of your users and they both get your team talking in a more user centred way and viewing a product, service or issue from the perspective of your stakeholders.
However, empathy mapping differs from personas in that it focusses on uncovering the sensory information and experience of your users. While personas focus on interests, skills, personality, dreams and environment, empathy maps uncover what your persona sees, thinks/feels, hears, gains, and is challenged by.
In this way empathy mapping is all about sensory impact. And that’s what makes it such a powerful tool. Use it at the start of an ideas or design workshop and it’ll get you thinking user-first for the rest of the day.
How Do I Do Empathy Mapping?
It’s very simple to do. Make up a person in the middle of the page who is your user or customer, think about them when they’re using your service or experiencing their problem and start to flesh out their life in relation to it.
Think about the sensory experiences of the character. What do they think and feel? See? Say and do? What do they hear? Then think about what causes them pain, what do they want to gain from your services? Then think about ways in which you might create little gains for them.
Compared to things like demographics, segmentations, or audience profiling, empathy maps are much more useful way to get people thinking about their product or service’s audience for two reasons.
Firstly, in a workshop situation the teams who create these people tend to co-create them. They might initially be rooted in a real person that somebody knows, but they will be embellished by the group to round out the persona-lity.
And because the teams create them together, they all start talking about them as if they know them. It also stops people debating about what is implied by a broad, bland target audience definition.
Secondly, because the people on the Empathy Map are more ’rounded’ than typical audience profiles, the ideas people create to solve their problems tend to be more interesting, away from the generic centre ground.
Extreme Characters in Empathy Mapping
Sometimes, if you’re looking to disrupt or innovate particularly heavily, you might want to get even further away from the centre ground and really push the boundaries of your product, service or problem. To get right to the edge and a bit further you’re going to need extreme characters to empathise with.
Here’s where a little bit of help from John Willshire at Smithery comes in handy. John recently ran an empathy mapping session using lego minifigs to create extreme, ‘weird users’ to create products and services for. He was in part inspired, as are we, by Sense Worldwide’s approach to extreme users, first documented by Brian Millar in this article.
Basically, Brian says that if you want a breakthrough, game changing idea, then talk to the people who care most about your product, service or problem. For example say you’re looking to create a product that prevents blisters and sweaty feet talk to people who have to wear uncomfortable shoes a lot (eg dominatrices).
In the same way John shows how lego minifigs and their sheer variety of ‘make your own minifigs’ parts makes it easy to create extreme versions of users, especially if you ask workshop participants, as John did “not to ignore the weird bits on the minifigs they built, but to make them an integral part of that customer through the use of metaphor.”
The end result is empathy maps, minifig personas and ideas that stretch the boundaries of convention and get away from average ideas based on average stakeholders.
And that’s going to help you create better solutions to their problems.