Persona Creation Personas Use of Personas Value of personas

Personas and Empathy Mapping for Understanding Customers and Users

The following is a post from the APG Team’s summer 2020 intern, Jaad Mohammed.

Personas are an effective way to target a specific customer base, since we have a better understanding of who that customer base is and what those customers want, need, or desire. In other words, personas provide a means to empathize with those customers.

Through personas, we give our imaginary customer who was previously just some number on a market research spreadsheet a name and a face.

So, now that you can see them as a real person, you empathize with how they might feel and react to a certain situation, and you can accordingly make developments for your product.

Figure 1: Empathy Mapping Structure used with Personas.
Figure 1: Empathy Mapping Structure used with Personas.

This is where empathy mapping comes into the picture, which we integrate with your personas.

To make your personas feel more like a real person, you need to understand how a typical person represented by your personas would feel, think, say and do (see Figure 1).

The most effective way to do this empathy mapping is to conduct a workshop with key decision-makers of your product design. It also helps to refer to previously conducted customer surveys, if any, and/or to conduct interviews with existing customers to gain more insight for empathy mapping. You can also use data-driven personas to generate empathy points. APG is one such data-driven persona system that you can use to help create an empathy mapping.

For example, say there is an electronics store located near a university. The store’s primary customers might be college students. Let’s say there is a student, Sally who lives by herself in the university dorms — we have already started crafting of the personas from which to build am empathetic understanding! Sally likes to listen to music in her free time along with some of her friends. So, she may be looking for a set of speakers for her dorm room. Since she is a student, she might be on a tight budget. Now that we can empathize with Sally …. note that we are already thinking of her as a person — the power of personas! … you can think of supplying speakers of an unknown brand that has good sound quality and fits into what you assume to be Sally’s budget and other students like her. However, with data-driven personas, like APG, we might not need to assume things like budget about Sally. We may know.

We can dissect the above example into the 4 basic elements of Empathy mapping:


  • Feels: Like listening to music.
  • Thinks: She has to get speakers for her room.
  • Says: To her friends that she is going to look for speakers.
  • Does: Goes around in search of speakers with good sound quality and an attractive price.

Now, conduct a meeting with core members involved in product designing, like the product manager, marketing folks, etc.

  • Allot time to this session according to how deep or broad of an understanding you want of the customer. (30 mins – 1 hour)
  • On a sheet of paper for each person in the session, write down a name and situation faced by the person. (This sheet of paper is known as an empathy map)
  • Make 4 columns under it for Feel, Think, Say and Do.
  • Have everyone fill in their thoughts on their empathy map.
  • Finally, review the empathy maps and discuss any patterns, ideas, solutions.

These empathy maps can serve as documentation of what everyone thinks.

You can show the combined empathy map to members who missed the meeting and ask them for their inputs.

With the empathy map, created via the use of a persona, you can think more like a customer and keep your assumptions about the customer in check.

Jansen, B. J., Salminen, J., and Jung, S.G. (2020) Data-Driven Personas for Enhanced User Understanding: Combining Empathy with Rationality for Better Insights to AnalyticsData and Information Management. 4(1), 1-17.

By Jim Jansen

Dr. Jansen is a Principal Scientist in the social computing group of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, and a professor with the College of Science and Engineering, Hamad bin Khalifa University, and an adjunct professor with the College of Information Sciences and Technology at The Pennsylvania State University. He is a graduate of West Point and has a Ph.D. in computer science from Texas A&M University, along with master degrees from Texas A&M (computer science) and Troy State (international relations). Dr. Jim Jansen served in the U.S. Army as an Infantry enlisted soldier and communication commissioned officer.