An Empathy Map with a Time Variable - Verbal to Visual, Doug Neill - sketchnoting, visual note-taking, graphic recording

An Empathy Map with a Time Variable

Though sketchnoting is a tool often used to help you learn something new, it can also be used to better understand the people around you (or even those in the novels that you read).

In this post I’d like to share with you an addition to an empathy map (a specific type of visual thinking diagram) that I think you might find to be useful.

First, let’s start with what an empathy map is, in case you’re unfamiliar.

The Empathy Map: A Primer

An empathy map is simply a visual metaphor that helps you understand the experience of a single person or a particular group of people.

You start by drawing the profile of a person’s face in the center of the page, and then you separate the space surrounding that face into different sections.

Within each of those sections you can capture a particular aspect of that person’s experience.

The basic structure of an empathy map: portrait in the center of the page, lines radiating outward from there.

For today’s example I’m going bring in some categories that came up during a webinar that I hosted for teachers who are using visual note-taking in their classroom (in this case maybe to analyze character development throughout a novel).

During that webinar a teacher named George, based in the U.S., mentioned how he uses these categories: thoughts, actions, words, feelings, and desires.

Use each of the blank spaces to capture one aspect of that person’s experience.

After identifying the aspects of a person’s experience that you want to capture, you then can fill in each of those sections for the person and the situation you’re focusing on.

Rather than just writing what that person is experiencing, you might tap even further into your visual thinking skills by including some sketches.

This type of wholistic capturing will help you develop empathy for this particular person, hence the name of this visual tool!

When you capture an individual’s experience in this way (be they a fictional character in a novel or a real person in a particular situation), that helps you to develop a deeper sense of empathy.

Adding a Time Variable

The empathy map by itself is a useful tool, but the reason that I’m exploring a new layer to it is that another teacher (this time Signe from Denmark) asked how you might use an empathy map when reading a novel, but incorporate a stretch of time to show how a character might evolve throughout the progression of the story.

That’s where the idea of bringing a time variable into an empathy map came from.

To me it seems like all it takes is a simple addition to this visual representation that we already have: simply adding some concentric circles around the person’s face.

By adding concentric circles around the portrait, you create different sections of time within each category.

In that way, each of those initial category lines becomes a time axis, so that as you move radially outward you are moving forward in time.

In the case of reading a novel, as you move from Act I to Act II to Act III, you can document the transformation that occurs in a character’s feelings, in their actions, their words, desires, and thoughts.

Imagine being able to see the transformation that occurs in each of those categories over a span of time, all on one page!

What you end up with, then, is a more complete picture of what that character has been through, along with a deeper understanding of their actions along the way, and therefore a deeper sense of empathy as a whole.

A Group Activity with Your Students

This is the type of activity that you might want to do as a class.

You might dedicate some wall space to a large empathy map, and then at the end of each chapter you ask students to fill in each of the sections (maybe using sticky notes) with some of the most important thoughts, actions, words, feelings, and desires of the character that you’re analyzing.

As you continue to read that novel, having that reference of what the character has been through will add a layer of appreciation to the story as it unfolds.

If you decide to give this activity a try, I would love to see the final results!

This is a new enough type of capturing that I haven’t yet had the chance to try it out myself, so I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Come say hi on Twitter and let me know.

The Customer Experience

I also think there’s potential for this type of diagram outside the realm of education.

Empathy maps have already been used regularly in the business setting when you’re trying to more deeply understand the customer experience, and I think adding a time variable in that case can be helpful as well.

And really anytime that you’re trying to understand what an individual or group of people is going through, not just in one single snapshot but instead over a span of time, this type of empathy map with a time variable will come in handy.

So do keep it in mind the next time that you’re trying to understand what someone else is going through.

Dig Deeper

If you’ve enjoyed exploring empathy maps and would like to develop a broader set of idea-processing tools, then check out our online sketchnoting courses, maybe starting with An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking:

Reconnect to making marks by hand as you learn to use text, layout, imagery, and color to engage your visual brain.

That course will walk you step-by-step through the process of developing all of the individual skills you need, and then you’ll get to bring those skills together into your own sketchnoting process.

If you’re a teacher and want to share this skill with your students, then check out Sketchnoting in the Classroom:

Share the skill of sketchnoting with your students.

That resource kit includes short video lessons and follow-up activities to help your students develop their own visual note-taking skills and apply them to whatever it is you’re teaching that day.

You can also explore our full course library here.

I hope you find it useful to add this new style of empathy map to your visual thinking toolbox!