Design Tools & Social Change: The Empathy Map

Let’s go back to 1991 when I first started teaching science to rooms full of 12 year olds. I was fresh out of college and was even mistaken for a student the day I arrived to set up my classroom. How’s that for boosting my confidence?

Being a science teacher, I loved all the various hands-on activities and labs. I thought the students liked them as well and that doing science was better than listening to what other people did in science. It was an assumption made, and I honestly don’t recall being overly concerned if they liked my class or how I taught. I was the teacher and they were the students. As I look back, I  wonder what my former students thought of my classes, and if they remember anything that was taught. I recall asking them if they liked certain activities, but, to be honest, my main focus was to make sure I got through the curriculum I was expected to teach. The weird part about being a teacher, was that I didn’t ever think to really ask the students how they interacted with the material. I used the standard methods: participation, interactions, test scores and the ‘feel’ of the room, but it was all from my perspective.

Since leaving the traditional classroom, I’ve made a switch from being content driven to learner driven. What I mean is, I attempt to see the learner and their needs as the central focus, not the content. When I came across the Empathy Map, I had one of those, “of course” moments. What’s the point of creating a product, presentation, experience, or speech if the audience or end user/participant is left out of the design? Even though the Empathy Map was designed to be used in the Design industry (David Gray first launched this tool many years ago and has recently released a new version which you can upload here. The roots of this tool are in the Design industry and have been largely adapted in the agile community), it’s been eye opening to use. My first experience using it was with former high school students about their experience in secondary school with their responsibility to fulfill CAS (creativity, action, and service. Insite helps student fulfill this school requirement).

Hearing from the students about how they experienced CAS at their school affirmed some assumptions, while revealing other insights and experiences that were completely blind to me. This has helped change and modify our programs so that we the students remain at the center of learning.

The Empathy Map is also something we will be using with the students and the local community this year when we travel to South Africa, desiring to get feedback on the projects we do together. Empathy is the way we continually practice being human with one another. It’ helps keep us connected, and demonstrates respect. This tool helps keep empathy the focus.

I’d love to hear how you’ve used this tool in your context. Share your experience with a picture and #empathymapsocialchange