Empathy maps are a collaborative tool used to build a holistic understanding of what a certain person (or "user") thinks, feels, sees, hears, says and does.
After a specific person, or user group is chosen to be the subject of the empathy map, two different colors of sticky notes are used to differentiate "happy points" from "pain points". The class (or group of researchers) then collaborates to populate the different areas of the map based on what that user experiences. (The example I used in class was a hypothetical person named "Sam" that represents "high school students who are beginning to apply to colleges") NOTE: It's okay if it seems like a certain sticky note could be in two or more sections of the map, it's subjective.
After the map is fully populated, the class should then read all of the points out loud and look for similar themes or patterns. These patterns and themes should be written down. This allows the team to humanize the feelings and traits of a person or user group they may not be familiar with, therefore gaining empathy.
Empathy Maps are a valuable tool for design researchers as well. They allow us to sort through data (and quotes from interviews) and build a persona, delving into the hearts and minds of the users we are designing for.
Claire Partlow M.F.A.