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Case Study Research Design Steps Empathy

IDEO is one of the most innovative and award-winning design firms in the world.

They’re like the secret weapon of innovation for companies like Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Pepsi, and Samsung.

Over the last few decades, they’ve designed hundreds of products, like the first computer mouse for Apple in 1980, the Palm Pilot in 1998, a school system in Peru, and the 25-foot mechanical whale used in the movie Free Willy—to name a few.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about IDEO is that Founder David Kelley doesn’t consider them to be experts in any specific industry or vertical.

He says, “We’re kind of experts on the process of how you design stuff.” You could hire them to design a vending machine, an app, a mattress, or a space shuttle, and it would all be the same to them.

Image via IDEO

IDEO’s main tenet is empathy for the end-user of their products. They believe that the key to figuring out what humans really want lies in doing two things:

  • Observing user behavior — Try to understand people through observing them. For example, if you’re designing a vacuum cleaner, watch people vacuum.
  • Putting yourself in the situation of the end-user — IDEO does this to understand what the user experience is really like; to feel what their users feel.

Then, they use the information they gain to fuel their designs.

IDEO designers trust that as long as they stay connected to the behaviors and needs of the people they’re designing for, their ideas will evolve into the right solution. In other words, they let the end-user tell them what they need to focus on building.

If you want to improve a piece of software all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace, and then you can fix that.                                                                                                                                                     —David Kelley,                                   Founder of IDEO

Sometimes the best ideas are so obviously staring us in the face that we miss them. We can’t see them because we’re looking at things from the outside in, instead of looking at things through the eyes of the end-user.

That’s why the folks at IDEO strategically put users at the core of everything they do—a process they refer to as human-centered design.

What is Human-Centered Design?

IDEO defines human-centered design as a creative approach to problem solving that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions that are tailor made to to suit their needs.

In their Field Guide to Human-Centered Design they say, “When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.”

This is the central philosophy that human-centered design revolves around. Whether you’re designing physical or digital solutions, the process is the same and it consists of six phases:

Phase 1: Observation

The first phase is all about observing the end-user, learning, and being open to creative possibilities.

Your goal is to understand the people you’re designing for.

Identify patterns of behavior, pain points, and places where users have a difficult time doing something—these all lend to tremendous opportunity. If you can, put yourself in their situation so you can see what their experience is, and feel what they feel.

Phase 2: Ideation

In this phase you start brainstorming ideas with your team based on what you learned from your observations and experiences in Phase 1.

Your goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can.

As you’re coming up with ideas, stay focused on the needs and desires of the people you’re designing for. If you do this, your group’s ideas will eventually evolve into the right solution.

Phase 3: Rapid Prototyping

In this phase you’re going to quickly build a simple prototype of your idea. This makes it tangible and gives you something to test with the end-user.

Don’t try to build a fancy high-fidelity prototype right now. IDEO is notorious for creating simple prototypes made out of cardboard.

Ask yourself this: What can I spend the minimum amount of time building that will allow me to get user feedback as quickly as possible? The purpose of this phase isn’t to create the perfect solution, it’s to make sure your solution is on target.

Phase 4: User Feedback

Get your simple prototype into the hands of the people you’re designing for.

This is the most critical phase of the human-centered design process. Without input from your end-user you won’t know if your solution is on target or not, and you won’t know how to evolve your design.

Phase 5: Iteration

Once you get feedback from your users, use that information to fuel the changes to your design.

Keep iterating, testing, and integrating user feedback until you’ve fine tuned your solution. This may take a few rounds, but don’t get discouraged. With each iteration you’ll learn something new.

Once you’ve gotten your solution to a point where it’s ready to be used, it’s time to move on to the next and final phase.

Phase 6: Implementation

Now that you’ve validated the usefulness of your solution with the end-user and gotten your design just right, it’s time to get your idea out into the world.

If you’re designing software products, apps, or websites, go back to Phase 1 and repeat this process. With each new update that you implement, continue to observe your users, design for them, and use their feedback to direct your future solutions.

Examples of Human-Centered Design at IDEO

IDEO has used this process over and over again to design delightful products and experiences that people love.

You might be wondering how exactly you’re supposed to get started. How do you start observing your users? How do you put yourself in their position?

Let’s take a look at a few examples that illustrate IDEO’s human-centered design process so you can apply it to your own team.

Example #1: Designing a Medical Device for Nurses

IDEO was asked by a medical device producer to design a device that nurses would use to enter data during a specific procedure. The client had a vision of a sleek, futuristic gadget that the nurses would hold with two hands (picture how someone would hold an iPad) during the operation.

Photo via NEC America

But when the IDEO team watched the medical procedure take place, they noticed something that would make a two-handed device completely impossible.

When patients were going into the operation they were really nervous and afraid. So the first thing that almost every nurse did was hold the patient’s hand to comfort them—an obvious human element their client hadn’t noticed.

Image via Paul Bennett

IDEO went back to their office to brainstorm potential solutions, and they came up with a device that had a thumb scroll so nurses could do everything with one hand. That way they could input data and hold the patient’s hand.

It wasn’t as “cool” as the client initially imagined, but it was much more human and practical.

Imagine via Paul Bennett

Instead of approaching the project with preconceived notions of what the solution needed to be, the IDEO team started by putting themselves in the position of the end-user.

Then they used that information to direct their ideas, and even though they ended up designing something that was different than what they initially expected, they created a much more human experience for everybody involved.

Example #2: Designing a Toothbrush for Kids

In 1996, Oral-B asked IDEO to design a new toothbrush for kids. And the first thing the IDEO team said was that they needed to watch kids brush their teeth.

As you can probably imagine, the Oral-B executives thought this was a strange request. You want to go into people’s homes—into their bathrooms—and watch their kids brush their teeth? Everyone already knows how people brush their teeth, is that really necessary?

As strange as it sounds, that’s exactly what they did. They needed to see how kids actually brush their teeth, and they didn’t want to make any assumptions.

During their observations they noticed that the way kids hold their toothbrushes is totally different than adults.

Since adults have manual dexterity in their hands, they tend to use their fingers to manipulate the toothbrush with very fine movements. But kids just grab the toothbrush in their fist.

The problem with adult toothbrushes was that they were hard for kids to hold. Since they were so small, they just flopped around in the kids’ hands and were difficult to use.

That one simple observation led to a totally new style of toothbrush: the squish gripper.

And it totally innovated the kids-toothbrush space.

Image via IDEO

If you go into any supermarket or corner store today you’ll notice kids’ toothbrushes have fat, squishy handles. That’s the power of observing the behavior of your users and integrating it into your design process.

Example #3: Improving a Hospital’s Patient Experience

IDEO was asked by a large healthcare system to describe what their patient experience was like, and to help them improve it.

So the IDEO team started by putting themselves in the position of the patient. They had one of their team members pretend to be a patient in the hospital, and they discovered something obvious, yet completely overlooked.

When they presented their findings to the hospital executives, they started by showing a 6-minute video clip of the ceiling in a patient’s room. At first the executives were confused and didn’t understand what they were watching. Then the IDEO team explained the purpose of the video.

The point was this: when you’re a patient in the hospital you spend all day lying in a bed staring at the ceiling for a really long time—and it’s a really bad experience.

Image via Paul Bennett

Watching that video clip helped the executives catch what IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer Paul Bennett calls “a blinding glimpse of the bloody obvious.”

Looking at the patient experience from the point of view of the patient—instead of the organization—was a huge revelation to them, and they immediately took action. They realized that improving the patient experience wasn’t about making massive changes to the system. Instead, it’s about doing small things that make a big impact.

So IDEO started brainstorming ideas and prototyping, and they quickly implemented small four changes:

  1. Decorated the ceilings to make them more aesthetically pleasing.
  2. Covered one wall of each patient’s room with whiteboards so visitors could write messages for the patient.
  3. Made the floor of patient rooms a different style and color than the floor in the hallways of the hospital. This signified the transition from public space to private space, making patients feel like this was their own personal space.
  4. Attached rear-view mirrors to hospital gurneys, so that when patients were wheeled around by a doctor or nurse they could actually see the person they were having a conversation with.


Seeing opportunities in the things you observe and creating solutions for them isn’t a particularly new idea. There’s a long history of inventions based around this method, for example:

  • One Saturday morning, Joan Ganz Cooney walked downstairs and saw her daughter staring at the television, waiting for programs to come on. From that observation came Sesame Street.
  • George de Mestral took his dog for a walk in a field, and when he got home his socks and shoes were covered in little prickly burrs. From that experience he invented Velcro.
  • When Percy Shaw was driving home one night he saw a cat’s eyes on the side of the road. After noticing that he invented the reflective road studs that you see on most highways and roads today.
  • Malcolm McLean was moving from one country to another, and he noticed it was taking a really long time to load all of his stuff. From that observation came the shipping container.

There’s a long history of innovative designers observing the world around them, seeing things with a fresh eye, and using that observation as an opportunity to create new possibilities. The common thread that ties all these stories together is a design process that starts with understanding the end-user of your product.

IDEO does this by observing the user, and putting themselves in the user’s shoes. They know that if they can feel what people feel—what their experience is really like—then they can use that information to fuel their design solutions. And this process has turned them into one of the most influential and award-winning design firms in the United States.

To build a truly innovative and useful product, you don’t need to start with the brightest idea or the fanciest technology. You just need to start by understanding people.

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About the author:Spencer Lanoue is a former marketer at UserTesting, where he helped UX designers, PMs, and marketers make things people want. Follow him at @slanoue.

As UX professionals, it is our job to advocate on behalf of the user. However, in order to do it, not only must we deeply understand our users, but we must also help our colleagues understand them and prioritize their needs. Empathy maps, widely used throughout agile and design communities, are a powerful, fundamental tool for accomplishing both.

Definition: 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.

This article is a guide to empathy mapping and its uses.


Traditional empathy maps are split into 4 quadrants (Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels), with the user or persona in the middle. Empathy maps provide a glance into who a user is as a whole and are not chronological or sequential.

The Says quadrant contains what the user says out loud in an interview or some other usability study. Ideally, it contains verbatim and direct quotes from research.

“I am allegiant to Delta because I never have a bad experience.”

“I want something reliable.”

“I don’t understand what to do from here.”

The Thinks quadrant captures what the user is thinking throughout the experience. Ask yourself (from the qualitative research gathered): what occupies the user’s thoughts? What matters to the user? It is possible to have the same content in both Says and Thinks. However, pay special attention to what users think, but may not be willing to vocalize. Try to understand why they are reluctant to share — are they unsure, self-conscious, polite, or afraid to tell others something?

“This is really annoying.”

“Am I dumb for not understanding this?”

The Does quadrant encloses the actions the user takes. From the research, what does the user physically do? How does the user go about doing it?

Refreshes page several times.

Shops around to compare prices.

The Feels quadrant is the user’s emotional state, often represented as an adjective plus a short sentence for context. Ask yourself: what worries the user? What does the user get excited about? How does the user feel about the experience?

Impatient: pages load too slowly

Confused: too many contradictory prices

Worried: they are doing something wrong

Our users are complex humans. It is natural (and extremely beneficial) to see juxtaposition between quadrants. You will also encounter inconsistencies — for example, seemingly positive actions but negative quotes or emotions coming from the same user.  This is when empathy maps become treasure maps that can uncover nuggets of understanding about our user. It is our job as UX professionals to investigate the cause of the conflict and resolve it.

Some of these quadrants may seem ambiguous or overlapping — for example, it may be difficult to distinguish between Thinks and Feels. Do not focus too much on being precise: if an item may fit into multiple quadrants, just pick one. The 4 quadrants exist only to push our knowledge about users and to ensure we don’t leave out any important dimension. (If you don’t have anything to put into a certain quadrant, it’s a strong signal that you need more user research before proceeding in the design process.)

One User vs. Multiple-Users Empathy Maps

Empathy mapping can be driven by any method of qualitative research (and can be sketched even if research is lacking). They can help UX professionals understand what aspects of their user they know and where they would need to gather more user data.

Empathy maps can capture one particular user or can reflect an aggregation of multiple users:

  • One-user (individual) empathy maps are usually based on a user interview or a user’s log from a diary study.
  • Aggregated empathy maps represent a user segment, rather than one particular user. They are usually created by combining multiple individual empathy maps from users who exhibit similar behaviors and can be grouped into one segment. The aggregated empathy map synthesizes themes seen throughout that user group and can be a first step in the creation of personas. (However, empathy maps are not a replacement for personas. But they can be one way to visualize what we know about a persona in an organized, empathetic way.)
  • Aggregated empathy maps can also become ways to summarize other qualitative data like surveys and field studies. For example, an empathy map can be used to communicate a persona, instead of the traditional ‘business card’ approach. As more research is gathered about that persona, you can circle back to the empathy map and add new insights or remove those that have changed or been invalidated.

Why Use Empathy Maps

Empathy maps should be used throughout any UX process to establish common ground among team members and to understand and prioritize user needs. In user-centered design, empathy maps are best used from the very beginning of the design process.

Both the process of making an empathy map and the finished artifact have important benefits for the organization:

  • Capture who a user or persona is

The empathy-mapping process helps distill and categorize your knowledge of the user into one place. It can be used to:

a.    Categorize and make sense of qualitative research (research notes, survey answers, user-interview transcripts)

b.    Discover gaps in your current knowledge and identify the types of research needed to address it. A sparse empathy map indicates that more research needs to be done.

c.    Create personas by aligning and grouping empathy maps covering individual users

  • Communicate a user or persona to others

An empathy map is a quick, digestible way to illustrate user attitudes and behaviors. Once created, it should act as a source of truth throughout a project and protect it from bias or unfounded assumptions.

Be sure to keep empathy maps ‘alive’ by revising and adjusting them as you do more research.

  • Collect data directly from the user

When empathy maps are filled in directly by users, they can act as a secondary data source and represent a starting point for a summary of the user session. Moreover, the interviewer may glean feelings and thoughts from the interviewee that otherwise would have remained hidden.

Process: How to Build an Empathy Map

Go through the following steps to create a valid and useful empathy map:

1. Define scope and goals

a.  What user or persona will you map?

Will you map a persona or an individual user? Always start with a 1:1 mapping (1 user/persona per empathy map). This means that, if you have multiple personas, there should be an empathy map for each.

b.  Define your primary purpose for empathy mapping.

Is it to align the team on your user? If so, be sure everyone is present during the empathy-mapping activity. Is it to analyze an interview transcript? If so, set a clear scope and timebox your effort to ensure you have time to map multiple user interviews.

2. Gather materials

Your purpose should dictate the medium you use to create an empathy map. If you will be working with an entire team, have a large whiteboard, sticky notes, and markers readily available. (The outcome will look somewhat like the illustration above.) If empathy mapping alone, create a system that works for you. The easier to share out with the rest of the team, the better.

3. Collect research

Gather the research you will be using to fuel your empathy map. Empathy mapping is a qualitative method, so you will need qualitative inputs: user interviews, field studies, diary studies, listening sessions, or qualitative surveys.

4. Individually generate sticky notes for each quadrant

Once you have research inputs, you can proceed to mapping as a team. In the beginning, everybody should read through the research individually. As each team member digests the data, they can fill out sticky notes that align to the four quadrants. Next, team members can add their notes to the map on the whiteboard.

5. Converge to cluster and synthesize

In this step, the team moves through the stickies on the board collaboratively and clusters similar notes that belong to the same quadrant. Name your clusters with themes that represent each group (for example, “validation from others” or “research”). Repeat themes in each quadrant if necessary. The activity of clustering facilitates discussion and alignment — the goal being to arrive at a shared understanding of your user by all team members.

Once your empathy map is clustered, you can begin to vocalize and align as a team on your findings. What outliers (or data points that did not fit in any cluster) are there? What themes were repeated in all the quadrants? What themes only exist in one quadrant? What gaps exist in our understanding?

6. Polish and plan

If you feel that you need more detail or you have unique needs, adapt the map by including additional quadrants (like Goals the example below) or by increasing specificity to existing quadrants. Depending on the purpose of your empathy map, polish and digitize the output accordingly. Be sure to include the user, any outstanding questions, the date and version number. Plan to circle back to the empathy map as more research is gathered or to guide UX decisions.


As their name suggests, empathy maps simply help us build empathy with our end users. When based on real data and when combined with other mapping methods, they can:

  • Remove bias from our designs and align the team on a single, shared understanding of the user
  • Discover weaknesses in our research
  • Uncover user needs that the user themselves may not even be aware of
  • Understand what drives users’ behaviors
  • Guide us towards meaningful innovation

Learn and practice empathy mapping in our full-day course Generating Big Ideas with Design Thinking.


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Gray, D. "Updated Empathy Map Canvas." Medium. 15 July 2017.