An empathy map is a collaborative tool used to develop insight into customers, users, etc.. It is often a starting point for gaining empathy for the people a team is solving problems for. Like a persona, an empathy map can represent a group of people, such as a user or customer segment.
The Empathy map has been created as a practice by Dave Gray of XPLANE
Empathy maps should be used throughout any UX process to establish common ground among team members and to understand and prioritize user needs. In user-centered design, empathy maps are best used from the very beginning of the design process. Both the process of making an empathy map and the finished artifact have important benefits for the organization:
Capture who a user or persona is. The empathy-mapping process helps distill and categorize your knowledge of the user into one place. It can be used to:
Categorize and make sense of qualitative research (research notes, survey answers, user-interview transcripts)
Discover gaps in your current knowledge and identify the types of research needed to address it. A sparse empathy map indicates that more research needs to be done.
Create personas by aligning and grouping empathy maps covering individual users
Communicate a user or persona to others
Collect data directly from the user. When empathy maps are filled in directly by users, they can act as a secondary data source and represent a starting point for a summary of the user session. Moreover, the interviewer may glean feelings and thoughts from the interviewee that otherwise would have remained hidden.
This tool can be used at various times in the product lifecycle. If there is a need to gain new understanding about people that have an impact on the growth or use of an application, this may be a good time to consider an empathy map. Particularly when first learning about new customers, users, or stakeholders.
Prepare the team by letting them know this activity seeks to gain empathy for the 'human' solving a particular problem for. Let everyone know they are there to step into the shoes of the user, customer, etc..
Check out these great links which can help you dive a little deeper into running the Empathy Mapping practice with your team, customers or stakeholders.