Design Thinking ICM512

Empathic vs Analytic Modes of Thinking

Learning how and when to use both in the empathy mapping process

Grocery shopping can often become a battle between my emotions and my budget. As I weave through the aisles, checking items off my list, I frequently find myself debating between purchasing the fair trade item for double the price or grabbing the “regular” factory brand. I usually feel good about my decision until shortly after I leave the cash register. I mean, maybe $10.00 for a small jar of peanut butter is plain outrageous! Where was my rational, analytical mind when I needed it? Oh, that’s right, it was repressed while my empathic thinking focused on supporting small and ethical businesses.

According to studies led by professor Anthony Jack at Case Western Reserve University, we are incapable of being both analytical and empathetic simultaneously—when we activate one of these neural networks, the other, consequentially, becomes deactivated. It’s as if both of these networks are controlled by a single switch— turning one on automatically turns the other off.

As brilliant and complex as our brains are, they cannot multitask. When it comes to analytic and empathic modes of thinking we can only operate one on at a time.

Both modes of thinking provide value to our lives and our work. The analytic network introspectively processes information, solves problems, and makes decisions. The empathic network connects us with our external environment, people, and new ideas. This mode of thinking enables us to step outside of ourselves and connect with others.

As user-experience designers, we must learn to bounce between each mode of thinking as we travel through the design thinking process. Our analytic mode will help us synthesize data and build realistic strategies. Our empathic mode helps us understand who we are designing for and examine how our decisions impact them.

As explained in a white paper by Ideo titled Empathy on the Edge, human-centered design requires us to be comfortable switching between both modes.

“Knowing that, it’s important to point out that empathic design is not about being emotional all of the time. It’s about creating a balance between empathizing with an experience and analyzing its nature and components. Managing this in the design process is an ongoing and exhausting, but highly rewarding collective effort.”

Empathy on the Edge by Ideo

Let’s take empathy mapping as an example. Empathy mapping is a simple visualization exercise that describes a user’s behaviors, motivations and attitudes. It helps teams focus on building products for the user’s needs versus their own desires. This entire process requires empathic thinking. Afterward, the observations are analyzed and synthesized using analytic thinking.

Empathy maps are a simple exercise that help you and your team better understand your users by experiencing the world through their perspective.
Image source: IBM

Try it out for yourself while paying particular attention to your mode of thinking. You may find several variations of this exercise online, but the idea is generally the same—closely observe your users and try to understand them better. Empathy maps are also an excellent opportunity for stakeholders and teams to better understand the user, so consider conducting this exercise as a group activity.

  1. Gather your materials.
    Print enough copies of the template below (one for each user) for each participant; or setup a room with a white board, post-its and markers.
Use an empathy map template to put you and your team in your user’s shoes.

2. Collect your research.
Empathy mapping is highly qualitative, so documents like interviews, videos, field studies, etc., work best for this exercise.


Suspend your analytical tendencies to judge and prematurely jump to conclusions. Be open-minded and curious during the following steps.

3. Identify your user. 
Briefly describe who you are observing and the scenario—who are they, where are they, and what are they trying to do? These statements help establish context for the exercise and the situation.

4. Fill out the “Saying” quadrant.
What is the user saying? Write down any quotes (verbatim) that reflect the user’s outlook or attitude. 

5. Fill out the “Doing” quadrant.
 What actions is the user taking?

6. Fill out the “Thinking” quadrant. 
What thoughts might your user be having? What do you imagine your user is thinking during this experience? Do these thoughts reveal anything about their motivations or beliefs?

7. Fill out the “Feeling” quadrant. 
Imagine what emotions the user might be feeling. Give attention to body language and their tone of voice as cues.


Now it’s time to process the experience and identify any new realizations. Look for patterns or contradictions between the quadrants. What does this information say about your user’s experience?

8. Cluster your notes
Review each quadrant and group notes that feel related to each other. Give each set a name to describe the theme. After you do this for each quadrant, scan the entire board, and search for similar or contrasting themes across. 

Clustering is about identifying patterns within the data and categorizes your insights. Image source: IBM

9. Capture user needs.
What are the user needs? Use verbs to describe actions or desires. 

10. Capture project insights.
What new realizations have you discovered from the exercise? Are there any ideas you think are worth exploring further?

Try this exercise for yourself, and try to be mindful of which mental mode you are operating in. If you find yourself judging or jumping to conclusions during the empathize phase, that’s an opportunity to change your thinking and work in the right state of mind.
Here is a template you can use during your next empathy mapping exercise, and below are a few more resources you can check out to learn more.

References & Resources

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