Empathy Maps Are Not Journey Maps – and Vice Versa

Back in 2019, I shared an excerpt from my book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business, that outlines the various types of maps that you may encounter or use in your work to understand and redesign the customer experience.

Over time, and especially recently, I realized that I probably should’ve included one other map definition in that section of the book for clarity, although there’s a reason I didn’t, which you’ll understand shortly. I’m talking about empathy maps. Too many people think empathy maps are a form of journey map. They are not.

While I wrote about empathy maps in the Characterize section of the book, I didn’t mention them in that section/excerpt mentioned above because they aren’t maps in the sense of journey, lifecycle, or value stream maps. They’re more of a mental model, and I’m not really sure why Dave Gray of XPLANE, who created the empathy map concept, called it a map, per se. Even as he updated the template, he credited culture canvases and business model canvases as the catalyst for updates to the empathy map. So, perhaps, empathy canvas might be a better name for it. Nonetheless, let’s make sure everyone is clear on what it is and why it’s so important.

OK, so what is it? What is an empathy map? No, it is not a journey map or a form of journey map. Journey maps are visualizations of the steps the customer is taking – and what she’s thinking and feeling as she takes those steps – while completing some job or some task with your organization.

Empathy maps are mental models that help groups focus on the people for whom they are designing or developing experiences. As Dave Gray describes them, they are tools that “help teams develop deep, shared understanding and empathy for other people. People use [empathy maps] to help them improve customer experience, to navigate organizational politics, to design better work environments, and a host of other things.” He goes on to say, “The Empathy Map was created with a pretty specific set of ideas and is designed as a framework to complement an exercise in developing empathy.”


Image courtesy of Dave Gray, XPLANE/Gamestorming

As you can see from the Empathy Map Canvas above, this looks nothing like a journey map. Spread the word. They are not one and the same! Empathy maps are collaborative – or individual – exercises to help you understand the customer (not the experience, like journey maps, but the customer) better. They complement journey maps, as Dave notes. There’s no rigorous, research-base process to develop empathy maps like there is with developing personas, but they can be used to get folks in the room focused quickly and precisely on the people for whom you’re understanding or designing experiences.

Here’s how I use them in conjunction with journey mapping.

First, you’ll need personas to begin mapping. Different personas have different preferences, needs, jobs to be done. Most clients/companies already have personas developed. Unfortunately, oftentimes, those personas were developed by Marketing and focus on the buyer funnel and why they buy. We then need to take those personas and delve a bit deeper, to better understand what’s in their hearts and minds. Empathy maps help us do that.

There are two scenarios that I’ve experienced with clients. In both instances, empathy maps have a role.


In this instance, I’ll do interviews with the customers who will be in the room (for a variety of reasons, but also) to better understand their hearts and minds, their pains and gains, their needs. This information is then shared not only with stakeholders in the room to provide insights about who they’ll observe mapping but also is included with the map report so that anyone using the map has a deeper understanding of the customer.


It’s fine to create assumptive maps – maps created internally based on what they assume they know because of feedback, research, or being customers themselves – but they must be validated by customers. (That’s my public service announcement for this scenario!) In this scenario, before employees map, I ask them to step into their customers’ shoes and complete the empathy map for the persona for which they’ll map. It helps them do just that: get into the heads, hearts, and shoes of the persona to ensure they are in the right frame of mind for the exercise that lies ahead.

As you can see, empathy maps and journey maps are not the same thing, but they are used together to create a clearer picture of the customer and the customer experience.

We run into problems when our knowledge becomes of the map, rather than the actual underlying territory it describes. -Shane Parrish

Annette Franz is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. She recently published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Sign up for our newsletter for updates, insights, and other great content that you can use to up your CX game.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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