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These 4 Questions Can Help You Identify Your Ideal Customer Many people are familiar with the concept of a user persona, but empathy mapping can help you discover the optimal users and customers for your offerings.

By Tony Scherba

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The start to any great product starts with a great idea. Most ideas are born as solutions to challenges that we face in our day-to-day lives, be it personal or professional. And while these ideas are sparked with the greatest of intentions, oftentimes along the journey of development, people forget who they are solving problems for.

We often see products fall flat because they are either catering to a small group of users or, on the flip side, people get sucked into the idea of making a product for everyone. The problem with building something for everyone is that it's not specific to anyone.

That's why the two most essential steps of the product-development process must start with empathy mapping and user personas. Many people breeze through these steps, and that couldn't be a bigger mistake.

Dedicating time to completing accurate user empathy maps and user personas will ensure that your final product will actually get used and is helpful in solving real world problems.

While many folks are familiar with user or buyer personas, empathy maps are something we find most of our clients have not heard of before, but they are actually a very important part of creating accurate and effective user personas.

What is empathy mapping?

An empathy map articulates what you know about the emotional and mental state of your users. By externalizing all of this knowledge, you are able to create a shared understanding of their needs and how they will approach your product. A shared understanding of this will also aid in decision-making, team-wide throughout the development process.

Empathy mapping helps developers:

  • Remove bias from designs
  • Discover weaknesses in user research
  • Uncover user needs that the user themselves may not even be aware of
  • Understand what drives users' behaviors
  • Be guided towards meaningful innovation

Why an empathy map?

No matter how innovative or delightful a product is, it's useless if it doesn't resonate with users. Unless the entire team understands how and why users will need the product you're setting out to make, design decisions will be harder to make. The empathy map allows the team to step into the shoes of the target user rather than making assumptions.

One of the first things we do as part of our product design process at Yeti is ask clients to work with us to create an empathy map. This allows us to align on the problem we are solving and how it will impact the end user. Typically, this exercise will surface important insights that will lead into how the product is positioned, not just for design, but the eventual marketing of the product as well.

Related: What Is Empathy, and Why Is It So Important for Great Leaders?

How do you create an empathy map?

To start an empathy-mapping exercise, you'll want your entire team to get together for a whiteboarding activity (virtual teams can do so by using virtual whiteboards). Before getting into empathy maps, you should have done some initial research into your target audience and have notes and ideally interviews from these folks. Make sure everyone has reviewed these. Having a baseline understanding of the target user is important before you begin.

Review your user personas and instruct your team to put themselves into the shoes of that user. Then start filling out sticky notes with answers to the below questions:

  1. What does your user see?
    • What's the user's daily experience like?
    • What are their media influences? What's their environment look like?
    • What do they know of your competitors?
  2. What does your user do and say?
    • How do they conduct themselves? What are their tendencies and behaviors?
    • What's your user's attitude and how do they communicate?
    • Do their actions and communications change depending on who they're with?
  3. What does your user hear?
    • What do personal connections share with them?
    • What is said by media influencers?
  4. What is your user thinking and feeling?
    • What makes them feel good and bad?
    • What worries them?
    • What does success and failure look like to them?
    • What obstacles stand in their way of achieving success?

Related: Why Empathy Is One of the Most Overlooked Skills in Business

Once all of these questions have been answered, the team should then collaboratively cluster similar notes in each quadrant and name said clusters with themes that represent each group. It's important to remember that the goal of this activity is so that the entire team will have a collective, shared understanding of the user.

Once everyone is in agreement with the empathy map, someone should construct notes that clearly define and represent the findings so they can be shared with the entire team. Combine what you gathered in initial user research and interviews with your empathy maps to create more vibrant user personas.

Truly understanding your end user is not a quick and easy process and shouldn't be a step that you breeze through. If you want your product to be used and successful, thoroughly understanding who you're creating a product for is essential.

Empathy mapping is a great exercise to get this product started but you should continually be building deeper understanding with your users. We've been compiling a lot of great exercises that can help you on your way to making a successful product in our free master class.

Tony Scherba

President and Founding Partner of Yeti LLC

Tony Scherba is the President and a Founding Partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Scherba has helped launch new software products, reaching millions of people for high-growth startups, famous musicians and Fortune 500 companies.

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