Methodologies for User Research

Your Empathy Toolbox: Ensuring you design a product users will need

Every designer knows that innovation starts with understanding people’s true needs and motivations. In fact, Human-Centered Design is innovation inspired by people.

But how can I actually get inspired by people? How can I get into their minds, how can I feel what they feel? To me, it always sounds far easier said than done.

Why empathy matters

As designers and innovators, we solve the problems of others. This means we cannot only rely on our own assumptions because it would be too limiting. Thus, to assess a problem from a different perspective and make sure that we solve real pain points, we need to cultivate empathy.

Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.
Tim Brown, IDEO

How to define empathy

Empathetic thinking is the ability to take someone else’s perspective and place yourself in another’s position.

In the professional and design ecosystem empathy can be built through user research. It’s this journey into the feelings of others that inspired me to write this article. I’ll share with you some of the techniques and tools I rely on to build empathy with the users I’m designing for.

The empathy toolbox

Netnography: leverage the power of digital networks

The quickest way to start your empathy journey is to do online research. Netnography is like doing ethnography in a cyber village: you collect qualitative insights on what people like, miss, or wish would exist within a solution. How? By scrolling through forums, social media, or product review websites, and by using conversations as data to shed light on user needs and wants.

Here are some online review sites with suggestions for collecting business and product reviews.

Nethnography as a user research method to gain emapthy

Scrolling through customer reviews, questions and answers can unveil valuable insights for your future designs



Talking to your users is one of the most direct ways to get insights and understand their motivations, their pains, and not only design for them but with them. It comes as a logical step after researching online.

Even if it requires a lot of practice to get your interviewing right, to make people think critically and open up without any bias, in the end, it’s a great method that only requires six interviews for you to gain a full understanding of your users’ needs and pain points and to indicate a focus for your ideation.


Empathy map: explore user feelings

I often use empathy maps as an intermediary step before constructing a larger customer journey. By focusing on a specific situation, it’s probably the most empathetic technique since you try to put yourself in the mind of your target users and reflect upon their thoughts, feelings, and sensorial experiences. The outcome is a compilation of user pains and gains in a specific situation and is very useful to take the right path towards designing the user experience.

Here’s a good description on how to use it.

Empathy map as a research tool

The Empathy Map Canvas designed by XPLANE


Extreme personas: inspire radical breakthrough

Personas are often a must-have for every innovation team, as they help to keep a focus on who they are trying to design a product for.

Crafting extreme personas takes it even one step further. Extreme personas are based on extreme users’ attitudes. I like to use them as they force you to stretch your thinking and change your perspective to accommodate for very different feelings toward technology, high or low familiarity with a product, various income levels, etc.

extreme personas as a research tool

IDEO case for extreme personas when designing for the food industry


Field research: understand what people value and care about

Contextual inquiry is the observation of how people use your solution in their natural environment. It takes time to organize the setup but it is one of the most efficient ways to test your product with real users, collect valuable insights, and get inspired. It’s important to look for things that prompt certain behaviors, reactions, or hacks from people while using your solution.


Experience mapping: align with your team

Mapping the journey of your customers is probably the most interactive way to build empathy. Experience mapping is a visual thinking tool that consists of mapping user actions horizontally and feelings vertically in a table (see my example below). Thus you can identify opportunity areas for further improvement of a product or service experience: where do people have problems with their workflows? What are their happy moments? Doing this exercise with your research team helps align on the next steps and vision for the product.

Find a good example on how to do experience mapping here.

experience map or user journey map for user research

A simple user journey map framework


Diary studies: record habits over a longer time frame

A diary study is an interesting way of following up on any of the previously discussed methodologies. I recommend using it if you need to dive deeper into the habits and behaviors of your users or if you are looking for common patterns. This will help you answer questions such as “In which context does a use case or a problem arise?” or “How do users adapt and solve different situations in their own way?”.

Here’s a good resource that explains how to get started with it.

diary study as a research tool

A basic diary I designed to collect insights about morning and evening routines — Project Ophi — A.I assistant for work

The power of sharing insights

Ultimately, what is the point of this journey?

If innovation is inspired by people, then the ultimate goal is to share the empathy you gained throughout your journey with your team. It might seem obvious, but in my experience, it is actually where most innovation teams struggle the most; teams often fail to translate their learnings into inspiring insights leading to efficient ideation sessions and, eventually, to truly disruptive user-centric solutions.

Empathy is at the heart of design and innovation. It can be either a virtual or a physical journey for you, but at the end of the day, it is your responsibility as designers to expose your innovation team to the feelings and challenges of your target users.

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