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Empathic Design: Mapping Your Brain, Brand, and Data

What’s the best way to increase conversions? Apart from basic usability fixes, aligning your messaging and design with your users’ motivations is a good bet.

Problem is, discovering user motivations is one of those things that is much easier said than done.

There are, however, research techniques that purport to do just that.

Empathic design is one such technique, an underutilized facet of qualitative research.

It can do wonders in discovering brand perceptions and user motivations and to tease out some of the unconscious factors that go into consumer decision making.

Table of contents

What is Empathic Design?

According to Wikipedia, empathic design is “a user-centered design approach that pays attention to the user’s feelings toward a product.”

In the simplest sense, then, empathic design is a function of user-centered design – which is defined by Wikipedia as “a framework of processes (not restricted to interfaces or technologies) in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.”

In practice, however, empathic design seeks to identify latent customer needs in order to create products or messaging that customers didn’t even know they wanted. It tries to tease out some of the subconscious desires that customers would normally have difficulty envisioning or articulating, as well as to align branding and design with those subconscious desires to create more motivation to purchase.

What we call “Empathic Design” is a bit different than the Wikipedia definition, in that it is an actual research process as opposed to more of a philosophy. What we do is use qualitative surveys as well as observation to create a piece of formative research known as a Limbic Map®:

Image Source
Image Source

You may recognize this map as part of a UX research strategy popularized by André Morys from KonversionKraft (or before that as research from Hans-Georg Häusel). It’s actually a technique developed by German firm, Nymphenburg Group.

It maps emotions based on three categories:

  • Stimulant
  • Dominance
  • Balance

“Stimulant” includes playful emotions like creativity, curiousness, fun, pleasure and humor. According to Sirja Sulakatko, “these emotions are vital for growing from an infant to an adult. When a person has grown-up, they play an important role in discovering new things.”

“Dominance” involves order and discipline but also attaining status or position over others. It includes words like power, pride, honor, ambition, and logic.

“Balance” includes security related terms like trust, friendship, loyalty, and home.

Why these particular values? Well, according to the Nymphenburg Group, “the rough assignment of these emotional values to certain fields was undertaken by qualified psychologists. Their distribution and relationship are based on empirical data.”

The Seven Limbic® types

In addition, based on where customers identify themselves on this map, there are seven Limbic® types (taken from Nyphemburg’s white paper on the technique):

  • Harmonizers – very family-oriented, emotionally led and tend to avoid risks. They go for brands which signal positive emotions and trustworthiness.
  • Traditionalists – usually lead a modest lifestyle and are skeptical of new things, risks, spontaneity and relaxed attitudes. They expect brands to be “safe” and trustworthy.
  • Bon vivants – free-spending, money is no object types. They enjoy shopping and follow the latest fashion trends. They’re very event and experience oriented people.
  • Disciplined – differ from traditionalists in that they do not necessarily place emphasis on tried and trusted products, but are attracted by the straightforward and uncomplicated. They like guaranteed quality and good price/benefit ratio.
  • Hedonists – enjoy everything that highlights their body or personality, or places them in the limelight, including flaunting brand labels. They tend to be ambitious and creative. They gravitate towards impulsive buys, usually towards expensive products.
  • Performers – assertive, highly ambitious, ready to take on responsibility and more rational than emotional. They value exclusivity and prestigious brands, rejecting cheap brands.
  • Adventurers – love nonconformity, spontaneity and leadership. They are attracted by risks, novelties, fashion, attractive brands offering added value or performance attributes.

Based on this research strategy, we’ve created our own map for our Empathic Design strategy:


How the Technique Actually Works

What you’re looking for are the implicit reasons people use your product. With this knowledge, you can better design and position your product to align with their emotions and motivations.

Tactically, this can be done in a few ways. Mainly, you’re going to want to a gather a decent sample of people who have bought from you before (generally, we like repeat customers). You then give them a Limbic Map® and ask them:

When you are shopping for [Product Name], pick the top 3 words that BEST describe what you associate with the product.

With an adequate sample (we generally recommend at least 100), your heat map begins to illuminate certain emotions and motivations to which you can play in your design and copy.

You can also do this type of research for broader branding purposes, such as crafting advertising messages and positioning yourself in relation to competitors. All you do is change one word here:

Considering your experience with [brand name], what words do you MOST associate with [brand name]?

This question is also useful for tracking your brand over time, and especially if you try any drastic changes, like site redesigns or positioning shifts. It is also widely applicable for product packaging with physical goods.

Because of its formative nature, empathic design can be used in product innovation and development as well. Wikipedia puts it well:

“…in empathic design techniques, users are almost as involved in product design as designers and engineers. Therefore, such technique, when used effectively, can achieve breakthrough designs in potentially shorter product development cycles.

To achieve this, they caution that observation group should consist of several others than simply designers and engineers, including trained anthropologists and/or ethnographers”

One interesting thing about empathic design is that it is formative instead of summative:

  • Formative research is exploratory. It’s done at the start of a design project to guide the process.
  • Summative research is done at the end and is used to determine its success.

A/B testing, and analytics in general, are summative, meaning they are used at the end of something to tell you if it worked or not. When you use something like empathic design, or if you user test your prototypes (to give another example), these techniques are formative, and they work wonderfully in conjunction with summative analysis.

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Image Source

Empathic Design in Action: How Is It Used?

According to the of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values, values refer to desirable goals that motivate action.

If we know that our most loyal customers have chosen individualism to describe the product the most it infers that they are pursuing their goal towards individualism and freedom with the product.

When we know the desire we can start finding ways to communicate it with copy, design and test if it has similar emotional effect on random people and if clearer message attracts more loyal customers.

Take the answers and design variations based on the reasons people are motivated to buy. For instance, if you have a pair of shoes, and people’s answers cluster around quality/function, individuality/rebellion , and style/fashion, you create variations that attempt to elicit each of these emotions.

This case study was outlined by André Morys of KonversionKraft in CXL Institute. They found that answers clustered around three primary values – style, differentiation, and quality. So they treated each of the three as their own hypothesis and designed variations based on each of them:


Then you analyze the goal metrics and see which version works best.


As you can see, there’s a ton of room for creativity in terms of execution here. Just because you know now that your audience buys for “power,” for instance, doesn’t tell you exactly how to convey that.

But what happens, is we look at the distribution of those who associate the brand/product with “power,” and then try to demonstrate those traits.

For instance, power values emphasize attaining or preserving a dominant position within the more general social system.

Goals for this value tend to be achieving social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.

So how can we portray that in our variation? It could suggest that customers are open to loud and aggressive sales. Perhaps that the design can be more dominant/powerful, which could include highly contrasting colors with dark reds and black.

Then we test designs based on that, as well as designs based on other values that received high distributions of answers.

So empathic design just gives you a starting point. A quality like “power” is open to the interpretation of designers, so from there on it’s iterative testing and optimization.

According to Unbounce, summing up Morys’ strategy, “you can validate your assumptions in two different ways – one qualitative and the other quantitative:

  • Gut check your designs with user testing. Show volunteers your landing page design and ask them which of the values on the Limbic Map® comes to mind first. Make changes to the design and copy until they point to the one you were aiming for.
  • A/B test different designs with your target audience and let the data speak for itself.”

Or you can do both, which is probably for the best.

Limitations of Empathic Design

What are the limitations?

Of course, this only tells brand associations, and not whether it is effective or useful.

Perhaps, although they associate with “independence” a design that portrays “safety” would be more more effective? Volition is a tricky beast, and even though someone says they associate a product with a certain word, does not mean that they actually do unconsciously. But like all qualitative data, it’s more of a guiding hand than it is a strict rule.

The insights you gain by mapping associations onto a Limbic Map® go as far as you test them, quantitatively, using controlled experiments. Similar to eye-tracking or user testing, or any other qualitative indicator, you still have to implement the variation (and there could be a million different ways to execute), but the qualitative insight is simply giving you evidence to support a given hypothesis.

It’s up to you, then, to explore new experiences given that direction. Despite any limitations of this survey and framework, I like to think of that George E.P Box quote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

And this one can certainly be useful.


When it comes to A/B testing a product page, creating a promotional video for your product, measuring your brand perception over time, or benchmarking against competitors, empathic design can be a useful tool for your arsenal.

By mapping out user emotions and motivations on a Limbic Map®, you can get a better idea of what drives their decision making regarding your specific product or brand. From there, you can better develop A/B test hypotheses to explore.

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