You can never be sure what will capture people’s imagination (or I would have invented Fidget Spinners, Pet Rocks®, Pokémon® and Beanie Babies®). Occasionally, though, you stumble across something that seems to meet a previously unidentified need and becomes highly sought after.

For the Design Lab, our hot item has been Empathy Mapping. Whenever we have included an Empathy Map in a workshop, not only is it a wildly successful exercise but we are subsequently flooded with requests on how to do it correctly.

This blog isn’t intended to be a beginners guide to empathy mapping (spoiler alert – there are some links at the end where you can find out more about it) but some background information might be useful. Empathy mapping originates in design thinking and was created by Dave Gray of XPLANE. The starting point for design thinking is always empathy and understanding the user experience of whatever challenge, issue, product or service is your focus. An Empathy Map allows you to quickly and easily do just that.

A typical map looks like the one below. Participants either write on it in real-time or it’s completed using information gathered through interviews or observations. The sections reflect the entirety of the user experience: their thoughts, their feelings, and what they hear, see, say and do in relation to it. “Pain” describes their biggest challenges and obstacles they face, and “Gain” is how they would stand to benefit from new or improved products or services.

We’ve used this tool with groups of patients and healthcare staff (and sometimes mixed groups) to explore everything from what it’s like to live with a chronic condition to the challenges of trying to improve person centred care.

Some sessions have been face-to-face and some were conducted on-line but, whatever the method, the response has been the same. Participants get engaged with the process immediately and are very comfortable with sharing their experiences. One participant described the process as cathartic and said he had disclosed thoughts and feelings only previously shared with his wife and physician.

At the Design Lab, we’ve been astonished at how word has virally spread throughout AHS about Empathy Maps. So what has caused this level of interest? Psychologists have found that buzz worthy topics or ideas tend to share certain features. Firstly they must have utility i.e. people can see that they will be useful and helpful. Then there needs to be an entertainment factor; it has to make you feel good in some way. Lastly, people are more willing to share something they find inspiring and which encourages them to be creative.

Empathy mapping appears to meet all of these criteria. In terms of utility, it offers a user-friendly alternative to more labour intensive and time-consuming options (such as focus groups) to gather first hand user experiences. In our experience it is also a fun, interactive tool both for facilitators and participants, and so meets the entertainment element. And once someone has seen the tool in practice, they are very quick to see how it can be applied, which suggests it has the necessary inspirational factor.

In addition to these three crucial components, for something to create a buzz it has to evoke a strong emotion in those exposed to it. Empathy mapping achieves this not only through the genuine and powerful responses it draws forth from participants, but it also connects with people’s desire to be more person-centred and really understand the lives of those they are working with.

Of course collecting information about the user experience is pointless unless you act on it. We have found many groups struggle to act on what they have learned and fail to implement real changes. Exploring the reasons for this and ways to actually ‘get stuff done’ is a story for another day!

While we encourage you to learn more about empathy mapping and how to use it in your own work, it’s worth sounding one note of caution: even the best ideas can turn into passing fads if overused and overexposed; anyone remember Pokémon Go?

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