A Step by Step Guide to Building Your Digital Vision

Why Empathy Maps Are Your Secret Weapon

This article is part 3 of an ongoing series on Digital Strategy Development.  (Read Part 1: Digital Strategy Starts With Marketing and Part 2: How to Develop A Digital Strategy)

Your digital vision needs to start with real people. If you’ve been following along with me in previous articles, you may have already done some work around assessing the current state of your digital presence. The purpose of the assessment to inventory your existing digital assets, tools and processes. Your vision needs to be oriented around your organization’s audiences and presented in terms of how they will have their expectations met.

Many people will tell you that the next thing to do is to create personas. I’m not going to do that, and it’s not because I do not like personas nor because I don’t think they work. It really has to do with efficiency. Personas and archetypes can be really helpful when designing software applications. Doing them right requires proper research and a fair amount of work and therefore time; even then, many people take shortcuts and end up just basing the personas on their opinions. There are more efficient tools to learning enough about your audience to frame out your vision without getting bogged down in persona work that may or may not be correct.

If you would like to learn more about the pros and cons of persona use, here is some further reading from around the web for and against the use of personas:

  • https://signalvnoise.com/posts/690-ask-37signals-personas
  • http://yourbrandvox.com/blog/2013/8/1/why-your-personas-dont-work
  • http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2013/01/are-personas-still-relevant-to-ux-strategy.php
  • https://medium.com/daily-ui-ux-inspirations/why-your-personas-dont-work-for-you-75c1abfcec94#.3ynb8xv6s
  • http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/08/a-closer-look-at-personas-part-1/

Who is Your Audience, Really?

Meet Emily. Emily is a Technical Lead at a growing start-up, with a “particular fondness for Javascript” and ironic t-shirts. She happens to follow one of our ThoughtWorks colleagues, Laura, on Twitter, which is how she noticed when Laura shared the news about the latest version of our Technology Radar.

When Emily follows the link in Laura’s tweet to the Radar, she notices that Javascript has been highlighted as a theme. Curious, she uses the search function within the Radar to learn more about what ThoughtWorks has to say about Javascript frameworks. Emily was unaware that the radar went so deep and wide; being interested in mobile testing frameworks, she also uses the site search to peruse some of the articles ThoughtWorks developers have written about Android and iOS development for low-connectivity situations.

Just then, Emily receives a push notification on her phone indicating that she has a meeting starting in 15 minutes. In order to keep reading later, Emily uses the context menu on her phone to push the link for the article she was reading into her Pocket account for later. Emily suspects she will have time to read the article on her 90 minute commute home on the train. She is hoping it gives her some ideas to share with the team during their off-site next week; they have been struggling with the fact that their mobile application performs poorly over slow internet connections. Emily knows that the team is talented and driven enough to solve this problem, but they seem to need a push from the outside to let them know that it’s OK to reach for some new inspiration.

Emily is not scattered. Her life, like many of ours, is complicated. She is trying to balance a fast-paced career with the realities of commuting and family life. She appreciates a technology firm that can get her smart answers but even more, she appreciates a company that appreciates her pain. She wants empathy.

Introducing Empathy Mapping

The empathy map is one example of a useful technique for getting to the heart of your audience concerns, without the overhead. Developed by Dave Gray and his colleagues at XPLANE, empathy mapping offers a low-fidelity mechanism for aligning your digital team around the needs of specific individuals in your audience.

There are many resources and adaptations of the empathy map provided online. I’ve included one basic template below that is available under Creative Commons. It’s intended to be an illustration of the model, although we tend to run the exercise with sticky notes and flip chart pages so that we can hang the results around our team room. If you have a distributed team, you might enjoy this online empathy mapping game from the folks at Conteneo.

Empathy Map Example

In its simplest form, the empathy map asks that we consider the customer through five different dimensions:

1. Thinking and feeling – what is important to them: hopes, dreams and fears
2. Seeing – what their environment looks like
3. Hearing – what influences them
4. Pains – obstacles and challenges they have
5. Gains – what they hope to achieve and how they might measure success

I like to look at these dimensions as guidelines that allow you and your digital team to put yourself into the mindset of the customer. Depending upon your industry and problem space you may need more than this. As an example, consider how we used empathy mapping when developing our strategy for recruiting at ThoughtWorks.

We applied the technique as a part of a larger strategy to develop longer term talent sources for our business. Our hypothesis was that we might be able to apply some of the strategies we used for communicating with potential sales leads to those who might one day be interested in a career with us. To test this, we brought together a cross-functional set of stakeholders that we thought could be useful in building out our empathy map.

Our stakeholders included:

  • Our head of recruiting
  • Recruiters and Talent Sourcers
  • Marketers
  • Head of operations
  • Content strategists
  • Social media strategists

What we brought to the sessions

There are a number of supplies you will want to ensure you have for the sessions. I’ve detailed those below. In addition, you’ll want to look at what sort of data you can bring that will give the working team insights into the mindset of your customers during the workshop. Some of the reference data we used included insights from online recruiting communities where interviewees posted reviews of our company.

Our supplies and reference data:

  • Large print-out of the empathy map (nice to have – lots of big sticky flip-chart paper will do also)
  • A prioritized list of our most important roles for each of our hiring locations
  • A mix of colored sticky notes
  • Dry erase marketers
  • White board
  • Data from candidate interviews
  • Testimonials
  • Glassdoor (online recruiting site) reviews
  • Insights from our web analytics about conversion rates, popular pages and blog articles
  • Social media mentions

Mechanics of the empathy-mapping sessions

We started off the sessions with a “Hopes and Fears” exercise, a favorite of ours in many workshops that we run. If you have not run this before, it’s a variation on the Speed-boat technique popularized in Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Games book. This session nicely kicks off the mapping workshop as it gets the group directly focused on the “thinking and feeling” dimension of the map and typically raises a few outliers that help us as a group designate items to the more appropriate segment of the map.

Once we have “thinking and feeling” out of the way, we’re able to move onto the other sections of the map. The beauty of the empathy mapping technique is that the rules are relatively simple. The group would put ourselves into the targeted role, discussing the segment of the map we were concerned with (e.g. Hearing, seeing, thinking, etc). Once we did a couple of rounds we moved to a time-boxed “capture and post” format in which we passed out post-it notes, set the timer, and allowed ourselves to capture as many items as we could until time ran out or we were all done.

Once we got into a rhythm, we found things flowed quickly and we soon had a large number of sticky notes. We also learned that we were starting to uncover a bit more of a shape to the data we were collecting. The items we captured started to form a picture of the lifecycle for recruiting prospects. The lifecycle looked something like the map below, with stages from awareness through commitment. We even identified post-hire phases of advocacy that could include concepts such as referral and recruitment, but decided to put those out of scope for our initial exercises.

Note that if you run this exercise, the stages are going to need to be specific to your business. In our case, we considered these stages to be similar to a sales funnel:

Awareness – General awareness of us as a company
Discovery – That point when there might be some curiosity as to what we might be like as an employer
Consideration – Thinking of exploring a new role with a number of companies
Commitment – When the prospect decides to actually apply

Note that we not only captured these phases, but we annotated our map with a brief definition for all to see.

Recruitment Life Cycle
Phases of the Recruitment Life Cycle


Building a customer journey canvas using our empathy mapping outputs

Your data will start to tell a story of the journey your customers take through your business. You need a visual format that accommodates this. I recommend using a very useful visualization called the customer journey canvas, developed by the folks at This Is Service Design Thinking.

The Original Customer Journey Canvas


The canvas can be a bit overwhelming when you’re first introduced to it, but after a bit of research about the technique, you’ll learned that it really has become a successful open-source technique for mapping your business in a visual manner.

The essential elements of your canvas:

  • Your roles/personas/archetypes
  • The lifecycle stages
  • The questions you would like to answer for the roles in each stage
  • The experience you would like to deliver for the roles in each stage. Note: As you flesh this out, you’ll typically want to denote what items are “Front Stage” (read: seen by the customer) and which are “Back Stage” (read: internal activities that are not intended to be seen by the customer).
  • Content needed to deliver the experience for the role in each stage

There is no one way to create a customer journey canvas.  Once you are familiar with the basics of the exercise, you may want to explore modifying the canvas to suit your team.  To that end, I have assembled a Pinterest Board of Workflows, Journey Maps and Canvases so you can borrow from the work of others.

As you can see within the graphic below, these elements can be arranged on the canvas using some simple swim lanes. We found that this made it very easy to construct the board on the wall using flip charts, sticky notes and sharpies. As we moved through the workshop, we liked that we could quickly arrange our outputs in a way that visually made sense to the other participants. You can also probably get a sense of where you might want to use more or less detail as appropriate for your team. For example, I think some teams might feel comfortable with a separate swim lane for the channels involved, whereas we were comfortable without it.

Our Proposed Canvas


5 Things we learned from empathy mapping

1. Process over results

Completeness is not what we’re going for in these exercises. I’ve expressed it in earlier articles, but its worth repeating: your digital strategy is never done and it’s always out of date. The value you get from running these exercises with your team is the discussions that happen along the way, as they provide the understanding as to why you are prioritizing the work you are.

2. Customer feedback often contains the answers you are looking for

I cannot underestimate the value of customer and community data when running these exercises. We found so much rich data right within our interviewee reviews on Glassdoor that became central to our group discussions. Much of it was corroborated by our web analytics and post-interview feedback as well. As an example, we found that we simply

I love a term created by John Jantsch (Duct Tape Marketing) and expounded on by Ann Handley (MarketingProfs): FUQ’s (Frequently Unasked Questions). These are things that people don’t know enough to ask when they are beginning their search for information, but ultimately do want to know! You can see Ann talk about FUQs much more eloquently than I do in her talk from Wistiafest 2015 (jump to 24:04).

3. Your goals are often different than you thought they were when you started

We tend to be such a growth focused culture that it’s almost natural to always be thinking of how we create more leads, more recruits, more content! There’s just no end to our desire for more sometimes. Well, somewhere along the way, we realized that we could definitely provide the information to excite more potential hires about careers with ThoughtWorks, but we could also dramatically reduce the number of interviews we would have to conduct with people who actually would not be interested in jobs with us. If we provided the right information to people before the interview process that previously they only learned during the interview process, that might help folks qualify themselves out.

4. Non-marketers can be passionate about content too
Those of us in the content business often lament that stakeholders within our business think they can order up content as if its a cheeseburger and fries. They’re not interested in how its made or if its even good for them; they just want it fast. We found this process raised so many great discussions about the best way to deliver a message. We even found that as the workshop moved into later stages where we had to prioritize what we really wanted to work on, people really were willing to advocate for certain content ideas and look for creative ways to make them happen.

5. Prioritize your segments before you start empathy mapping

You will want to consider the segments of the audience that you have prioritized as your focus area. You may be tempted to try to rationalize all of the combinations that you need to consider at this point in time. I urge you not to get bogged down with this. We actually found ourselves starting to map out all of the life stages (graduates, lateral hires, alumni), possible roles we might hire for (developers, testers, designers, etc) in all of the possible geographies (US, UK, Africa, Australia, etc); it became clear we would never get our work done. I recommend picking the one that is the most immediate priority for the business. You can always circle back through the model later to do the exercise for another audience segment.

To simplify our process we decided to focus on experienced developers and designers (lateral hires) within our US market for our first pass. This covered a large population of our recruiting goals and allowed us to get a hang of the process we were going to use in our workshop. We later did a second pass for graduates, as they helped us consider a whole other range of questions.

Pack up your vision and take it on the road


I have found that there is no substitute for a good, old-fashioned roadshow to get people behind your vision after you’ve created it. It certainly won’t survive the first meeting, but many elements of it will, and the plan will be the better for it. From this point forward it will be a living breathing strategy. We have experimented with a number of strategies for communicating vision and keeping it fresh and I will be working on a post to talk through some of those successes and failures soon.

In subsequent articles, I am going to touch on a couple of core areas that you will need to think about as you begin to operationalize your vision. One will be deciding on your channel mix: this is an area that sorely needs attention, as marketers continue to get bombarded with so many new channels that they feel they need to address all of them. The other is governance. Project and program management on the marketing side of digital often does not get enough attention and leads to a great deal of inconsistency and lack of progress as compared to our comrades in I/T. I look forward to sharing these pieces as they are available.

This article is part 3 of an ongoing series on Digital Strategy Development. Did you miss the other  parts? Read Part 1: Digital Strategy Starts With Marketing and Part 2: How to Develop A Digital Strategy.

Also published on Medium.