December 1, 2022

How to Plan and Conduct a Virtual Empathy Mapping Workshop

A man is working on an empathy map in a virtual empathy mapping workshop. He is using the Miro empathy mapping template.

Over here at Outwitly, we’ve been talking about empathy maps for a long time! They’re an amazing tool that designers, UX researchers, and stakeholders can use to develop an empathetic understanding of the people they are designing products and services for. Because we can’t read minds (if only!), empathy maps help to portray what is really going on in the head and in the heart of those we are designing for. They’re incredibly useful tools to help designers, team members, and stakeholders empathize with people like users and customers. 

Today’s post will break empathy maps down into a ton of detail so you and your team know exactly how to conduct a virtual empathy mapping workshop! We dive into…

  • 5 Tips for Planning a Virtual Empathy Map Workshop
  • 9 Tips for Running an Effective Empathy Mapping Workshop
  • Accessibility and Empathy Mapping

Let’s get started!

Download our FREE empathy mapping template – relied on by over a thousand designers and researchers. 


5 Tips for Planning a Virtual Empathy Map Workshop

Over the past several years, the way many of us work on a daily basis has moved online. This means the traditional in-person workshops we once knew, featuring flip charts, sticky notes, and face-to-face connection, have been adapted to suit the virtual workplace. Luckily, we’ve been at the forefront of this transition and have an easy solution for bringing empathy mapping workshops into the virtual world!

Here are our best tips for preparing for and conducting virtual empathy mapping exercises:

Note – the planning process isn’t always linear! We recommend tackling whichever step makes the most sense with your specific situation first or delegating multiple tasks to be completed simultaneously. Maybe you want to figure out your cohost situation first, start creating your whiteboard second, and send out a detailed invitation last!

  1. Time chunk – Time management is critical for facilitating remote workshops. Once you have an idea of many people you’ll be inviting, plan out each key discussion you want to cover and how long it should take. Consider…
    • 5 minutes to allow people to join the call.
    • 2 minutes to introduce yourself.
    • 5-10 mins for an ice-breaker (depending on group dynamics.)
    • 5 minutes to introduce empathy mapping.
    • 30 minutes for empathy mapping.
    • 5 minutes for each group to present.
    • 10 minutes for a bio and sensory break.
    • 5 minutes to summarize, discuss next steps and to thank them.
  2. Create your virtual whiteboard – Which tool is the best? We recommend Miro, MURAL, Figjam or the whiteboard that’s built into the software you already use every day already (like Microsoft Teams!) Some whiteboards allow you to hide frames you create until you’re ready to reveal them. If you’d like to send the link to your whiteboard to your participants, you can do so while hiding the empathy mapping activity itself until the workshop!
    • Whiteboard must-haves:
      • Your schedule for others to understand what to expect from the meeting.
      • Goals for the session.
      • An introduction to empathy mapping.
      • Unique space on the board for each group to work on their empathy map in the session.
    • Great to include, but optional:
      • Examples of empathy maps, or previous empathy maps you’ve created.
      • Any user research materials you want them to review prior to the session.
      • Virtual stickies for people to grab to add their ideas to (we find these can be helpful for those who aren’t used to creating things in the tool themselves.)
  3. Make the most of your invitation
    • Introduce yourself along with the purpose and goal of the session in your event invite. 
    • Attach a calendar invite for participants to accept. 
    • Introduce the whiteboarding software you’ll be using to the group you’re inviting if you’re unsure if they’ve used it before. This is a great way to save time answering questions about how whiteboard software works at the beginning of workshops! Link a how-to video to help those who might not feel comfortable to allow them to get up to speed before the meeting. 
    • We also recommend asking your attendees to join the meeting in a place where they feel comfortable having their audio on for discussion, and camera on if you feel it’s necessary. 
    • If you have any sort of research from a repository, interviews, video recordings of your users, or just a few insights, you might want to share these for the benefit of anyone who may not otherwise be aware of your users. 
    • Ask attendees to share any relevant information about accessibility requirements so you can educate yourself about their reality and create an inclusive environment!
  4. Invite a co-host – Whether you are a consultant or a full-time staff member, consider inviting someone to help you out! Co-hosts can help take the pressure off of creating a welcoming environment or to remedy any technical issues that might come up (i.e. muting that person whose dog starts barking.) Be clear to set expectations for what you need help with and share your meeting schedule with them to ensure they understand where they fit in.
  5. Setup your video tool
    • Configure permissions: Make sure you give your tool the permissions to access audio, video and screen sharing on your device. Ensure that as the host or co-host you have permission to configure what you need.
    • Test breakout rooms: If there are more than 4-5 people in your session, test how breakout rooms work with your software so you can feel confident setting them up for your participants in the moment.
    • Determine how screen sharing works: Every software is a little bit different here. Test this out to make sure you’re confident you aren’t sharing the wrong tab. Friendly tip – pause any notifications from your email, slack, or any other tools you have that might share messages to your desktop when you’re presenting. Trust us… This might help prevent an awkward situation!
    • Testing your audio and video: Make sure everything is working correctly before the big session! Consider configuring a virtual background that highlights your personality. We personally miss people joining calls with ‘The Office’ themed backgrounds and highly recommend bringing that back.
    • Make sure your tool is accessible to your participants with requirements, if you can’t figure it out yourself you can always ask them to test the tool ahead of time!

Once these planning steps are complete, you’ll feel cool and composed headed into the empathy mapping session! 

Watch Outwitly’s CEO Sara Fortier, who was featured on CTV News, as she explores empathy mapping and how it works in both professional and personal contexts.


9 Tips for Running an Effective Empathy Mapping Workshop 

As we mentioned, conducting empathy mapping workshops virtually is quite different compared to traditional in-person sessions! The goal and objective of the sessions are the same, but the delivery and way of connecting are different. Fear not – we’ve broken the steps down into an 8-step process for you to replicate! 

  1. Login 10 minutes before the session starts If you have a co-host, make sure they’re early with you too. The last thing you want is technical difficulty or to be rushing to a meeting you’re facilitating. Share your screen, open your schedule, and take a minute to feel confident and prepared. Welcome those who want to join the meeting early (yes, people do that.)
  2. Introduce yourself – It’s easy to forget to introduce yourself when you’re nervous, with a group of strangers, or when there’s just a lot going on. After welcoming everyone to the session, discuss your credentials, how and why you got into this type of work and what you have planned for the day.
  3. Ensure the group is comfortable with each other – Group activities like Empathy Mapping require people to feel comfortable expressing their ideas, which can often feel uncomfortable for those we aren’t used to or those who are worried about saying something ‘wrong’ in front of their boss. To help mitigate this and assist group members in adopting a beginner’s mindset, we recommend you set the mood and build some empathy within the group using an icebreaker. There are many awesome icebreaker activities on sites like Gamestorming, or in the community templates of Miro or Figjam. If you need a quick and heartwarming idea, we recommend the following prompt:
    • Each person can share their name, job title and team, as well as something they’re grateful for or looking forward to. Lead the group by going first, choosing the next in line, and having that next person do the same until everyone has gone. Keep track of each person’s turn because it’s easy to accidentally leave people out.
  4. Introduce empathy mapping and starting solo
    • Open your whiteboard and show them what you’ve prepared including an example if you think it will help them.
    • Have teams write down their ideas on their virtual sticky notes, and move them on the empathy map to the appropriate sections.
    • Before you ask your participants to start brainstorming, encourage them to write down their ideas individually without looking at the other group member’s ideas. This helps to avoid groupthink!
    • Ask them first to brainstorm what the persona would see, hear, think, and do in their situation while trying to complete their goal or task (which you have already defined for each group), and then brainstorm pains and gains afterwards. Remember to adapt your questions to contain inclusive language!
  5. Break the group up into teams of 4-5 people
    • Have each team be responsible for one persona. You will need to roughly define these teams in the planning phase, and decide which team members would preferably represent the persona they are working on.
    • If you’re a smaller group of 4-5 people, encourage your participants to start solo by playing some music to help them focus and prevent them from talking during this time. Stop the music when it’s time to share, and prompt the group with follow-up questions when necessary. Take notes on any themes you observe to share with the group in your summary. If your whiteboarding tool doesn’t have a playlist, try out our favourite.
    • If your group has more than 4-5 people, send them to breakout rooms with the following instructions:
  6. Prompt them to brainstorm what the persona would see, hear, think, and do – Tell them how much time they have to do so and if you can set up a timer for them, do it! Proactively check-in on those who have disclosed their accessibility requirements with you to ensure they can follow along with the group and that they feel included.
  7. Prompt them to move on to pains and gains
  8. Close the breakout rooms – Now that everyone is back in the same conversation, your goal is to keep the energy going as people start to fade and disconnect! Introduce your bio and sensory break, and when everyone returns back, ask one person from each breakout group to summarize and present their empathy map. Ask them to identify 2-3 key ideas per section and present them to the group. Thank each person for speaking and then pick the next group to present. Let them know they have 5 minutes, and if you’re still sharing your screen, share a timer so they don’t go over.
  9. Wrap up by thanking your group and sharing what will come next – Send out the empathy maps for others to review, and once they’ve been looked over, use this information to build or refine your personas. To ensure you improve continuously as a facilitator we recommend sending out a survey or reaching out to your participants for feedback. It’s especially important to learn from your participants who disclosed their accessibility requirements with you so you can improve your ability to include others in the future!

Virtual Workshopping and Accessibility

You’ll notice throughout the article we gave you some tips on how to make your virtual workshop more accessible and inclusive for participants with disabilities. As a facilitator of a workshop about empathy, you need to reflect on the empathy you have for both your users, who you are making the empathy maps of, and also your participants who are creating those maps.

Empathizing with your participants

  • Adapting your empathy mapping workshop to the virtual world provides you and your participants with many assistive tools you wouldn’t otherwise have in physical workshops – like screen readers, closed captioning services, and speech-to-text services! 
  • In addition to the tips we’ve provided you with above, work with your participants who have accessibility requirements to leverage these tools before your workshop to ensure they can participate fully. Still, a facilitator’s awareness and empathy for their participants can be as effective as technology.

Empathizing with your users

  • Ensuring the language of your empathy map is relevant to your users it critical. The article, “Your Empathy Lacks Empathy” by Dave Hoffer discusses the importance of creating variations of frameworks to resonate with users who have physical and cognitive disabilities.
  • Some great examples Hoffer provides are:
    • If your user is visually impaired, “What do they perceive” might be more appropriate than, “what do they see”
    • If your user is hearing impaired, “How do they receive information?” could be a better question than “what do they hear”

So, as you prepare your virtual whiteboard environment for the session, consider adapting the questions you’ll ask of each section of the map to best reflect the life experience of your users. You can also consider asking the same questions with more sensitivity and consideration of their specific context. We encourage you to have variations of your frameworks so that your language is inclusive to make them relevant to your users.

We know that was a lot of info to take in! Between prepping the session and conducting it, you’re sure to have your hands full. Feel free to bookmark this tab and revisit it when you’re planning your next empathy mapping session. We have no doubt that if you follow these steps, you’ll lead your clients and/or team members like a pro


Resources we like…

  1. Your Empathy Map Lacks Empathy
  2. Gamestorming – Ice Breakers
  3. NNGUX – Sympathy vs. Empathy