Using Empathy Maps to Explore Barriers to Writing


Productivity, Procrastination and Empathy as a Tool

Bec Evans


More of us than ever want and need to write. There’s more opportunity to get our writing into the world – with LinkedIn and Medium celebrating long form and platforms like Wattpad and Movellas sharing stories with millions of people each day.

However, these opportunities can put pressure on us to write about our work and businesses, to differentiate ourselves and create a ‘personal brand’.

One startup owner told me: ‘I feel guilty that every day I don’t blog is a day where someone else will steal the space’. Writing is a business imperative in the fast-moving tech scene where blogging protects your IP and your ideas as well as putting you in front of customers and investors.

Content is King – but that doesn’t make it easy to create. As the Nobel prize-winning author Thomas Mann once said, ‘a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’.

Once you need to write, the blocks start and procrastination kicks in. This problem fascinates me. Over the past few years I’ve been exploring it. I’ve worked with writers, and people who want and need to write, to uncover their blocks and test systems and approaches that help them become more productive.


Empathy – a Superpower for Digital Creation

I co-founded Prolifiko – a digital productivity coaching system that helps people start and stick at their writing projects. It might be a tech product, but working face to face with people has been essential to its inception and development.

The idea for Prolifiko came from chatting to people when I managed a writing retreat centre. Over the years, the chatting turned into more formal research, like user research interviews, user testing and a whole bunch of other techniques favoured by product managers and those working in innovation and user experience.

One of my go-to tools is empathy maps as they allow you to get really close to what your audience thinks and feels.

Empathy helps you understand people’s motivations so you can design products and services that meet their needs. In short, it’s a superpower for creatives and product designers.



What is an Empathy Map?

An empathy map represents what your audience thinks, hears, says and does – and ultimately what their pains and gains are. Like personas, empathy maps focus on an individual’s experience. It’s much easier to empathise when we have one person in mind, however, you can use them to gather many people’s experiences.

The map is divided into six sections:

  • Think and feel: What really matters to her? What occupies her thinking? What worries and aspirations might she have?
  • See: What things in her environment influence her? What does she see people around her do – friends, family and colleagues?
  • Hear: What are other people saying that impacts her thinking?
  • Say and do: What kind of attitude does she have? What does she talk about? What does she do in her spare time? What does her day look like?
  • Pain: What fears, frustrations or obstacles is she facing?
  • Gain: What is she hoping to get? What does success look like?

Empathy-Map (1)



The Power of Empathy

Empathy maps are traditionally used for product development, but their most powerful application is facilitating understanding – both with end users and between them. I like getting users to create maps themselves so as to capture their unmediated response.

Last week I ran a writing productivity workshop with students about to enter their third and final year of a creative writing degree. They are under a lot of pressure to complete assignments, novels and screenplays.

Writing, like many other creative pursuits, is a solitary activity and it is easy for people to feel isolated and alone. I wanted them to understand that their friends and peers feel the same – empathy maps helped me do this.

I used a version of empathy maps to share two specific experiences: first, of how it feels when they’re able to write and, second, how it feels when they are blocked, have no time and are unable to write.

Using the prompts on the map the writers wrote on post it notes what they saw, heard, felt, thought and did in each situation. They took turns to read out what they had written and stuck their notes on the map on the wall.

There was an amazing collective experience of shared understanding. It was humbling for me to facilitate this. It made the writers feel less alone and isolated and brought the group together as they embark on the challenging year to come.

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How to Get Started with Empathy Maps

People working in product development have been using empathy maps for a while, but it’s easy for non-specialists to get started with this technique.

First, get a copy of the map – just search online for examples – and draw or print it as large as possible. The next step is to populate the sections using real user insights rather than second guessing what people might think.

Instead of writing directly on the map, use post it notes and stick them in the sections. This will help you move insights around and cluster them into themes. It will end up looking something like this:

empathy maps - post its (1)

Empathy maps are a powerful tool to foster greater understanding of your audience’s wants and needs. You can take that learning to solve their problems and design better experiences for them.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab a map, step into your audience’s shoes and take a walk – empathy will be your guide.


bec evans

Bec Evans

Bec Evans is the co-founder of Prolifiko, a digital productivity coach that helps writers kick-start and continue their writing habits. In addition to running an early stage startup, she also works as head of innovation for Emerald Group Publishing. Bec was highly commended digital achiever in the Bookseller’s annual Futurebook awards for 2016 and Prolifiko was named by Creative England as one of its top creative innovative companies for 2017.

Author: Naomi Curston

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