AEIOU Empathy Map

45 minutes Time
2-5 Participants
Normal Difficulty
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AEIOU Empathy Map

AEIOU Empathy Map


Create an empathy map to better understand your customers

Good design solves people's problems. We must learn about our customers and their problems and organize our learning so that it can be shared throughout the team. Aligned, the team targets high value problems to solve.

An empathy map is a standard tool to help cultivate a collaborative effort to understand and organize what we know about users' goals, pains and causes of their behavior. An empathy map is accessible—its purpose is easy to grasp and its design is simple. A group with varying skill levels can contribute to developing an empathy map. No special learning is required.

While it is a staple in design workshops, empathy maps can be confusing. Empathy maps have two shortcomings. Ambiguous terms and myopic view of user behavior. The distinction between hearing and seeing confuses many participants. Hearing isn't truly hearing and seeing isn't seeing—they are merely symbols for influence. Furthermore, once completed, it doesn't adequately describe a person's relationship to their whole ecosystem. As one design researcher put it, "Design that does not consider the larger social, cultural, and physical ecosystem is going to miss the mark."

Many UX practitioners rely on the AEIOU method. It is a method that is well suited for describing a person's ecosystem. Simply put, it's a way to organize your observations about the characteristics that distinguish and unify aspects of a person's life, and a way to build models that will help solve their problems. AEIOU stands for Activities, Environment, Interactions, Objects, and Users.

Activities are goal-directed sets of actions. What are the pathways that people take toward the things they want to accomplish, including specific actions and processes? How long do they spend doing something? Who are they doing it with?

Environments include the entire arena where activities take place. For example, what describes the atmosphere and function of the context, including individual and shared spaces?

Interactions are between a person and someone or something else, and are the building blocks of activities. What is the nature of routine and special interactions between people, between people and objects in their environment, and across distances?

Objects are the building blocks of the environment, key elements sometimes put to complex or even unintended uses, possibly changing their function, meaning and context. For example, what are the objects and devices people have in their environments, and how do these relate to their activities?

Users are the people whose behaviors, preferences, and needs are being observed. Who is present? What are their roles and relationships? What are their values and prejudices?

As you can see, the U in the AEIOU method accounts for items typical to an empathy map and the other categories envelop the remaining ecosystem. A group discussing defining characteristics will naturally want to add environmental elements that are easy to categorize in an AEIOU model. When questions arise over ambiguity, precious time is lost. Because AEIOU categories are clear and expansive revising the empathy map to include them aids smoother work and deep insight.


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