Empathy Mapping with Lego Figures

I’ve been a huge fan of the principles of Empathy Mapping since I first read about it in Gamestorming (by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown & James Macanufo) a few years ago.

It’s very simple to do – make up a person in the middle of the page who is your customer, think about them when they’re in the market you’re operating in, and start to flesh out their life in relation to what you do.

What do they think and feel? See? Say and do? What do they hear? Then think about what causes them pain in the market, and ways in which you might create littles gains for them.

Compared to things like demographics, segmentations, or audience profiling, I find this a much more useful way to get people in workshops thinking about an audience for two reasons.

Firstly, the teams who create these people tend to co-create them. They might initially be rooted in a real person that somebody knows, but they will be embellished by the group to round out the personality.

And because the teams create them together, they all start talking about them as if they know them. It also stops people debating about what is implied by a broad, bland target audience definition.

Secondly, because the people on the Empathy Map are more ’rounded’ than typical audience profiles, the ideas people in workshops create to solve their problems tend to be more interesting, away from the generic centre ground.

Lately, I’ve been interested in pushing people even further from the centre in this type of workshop (partly inspired by Brian Millar’s ideas on Extreme Consumers).

What happens when you place weird users in the middle of Empathy Maps? And how do you get groups of people to come up with weirder than normal people?

I found the answer, as with many things in life, in LEGO…

When I was a kid, LEGO minifigs weren’t that exciting, to be honest.

Yes, there were knights and spacemen. Possibly emergency services. But the boring old normal LEGO minifigs had plain blue tops, red trousers and so on. There was perhaps one type of hair they could have. It was all pretty standard.

Nowadays though, if you go rifling through the ‘make your own minifigs’ bin in a LEGO shop, you’ll be hard pressed not to find a piece that doesn’t have some sort of weirdness to it.

A prisoner’s jacket, mermaid tail, surfer vest, bullet belt, lumberjack shirt… I can’t keep listing them of course, due to the sheer variety.

Which makes LEGO minifigs really handy to create ‘weird users’ to create products and services for.

I used this approach most recently during a three-day workshop in Brighton; it was part of a longer mobile product innovation programme I’ve designed with Mark Earls and James Haycock and his guys from Adaptive Lab.

We did it on the morning of day two, though in hindsight we could have gone earlier with it in the process, as soon as the teams had formed.

To run it, we used a pile of minifig pieces, and a pile of Artefact Cards to build up stories around them. Now, you may have loads of minifigs lying around, but it’s good to buy a selection fit for purpose perhaps.

I bought a big pile of minifigs from the LEGO store in Brighton (thanks to Alice there for being amazingly helpful). We had teams of five people so provided each table with ten heads, bodies, legs, hats/hair, and accesories.

NB – unfortunately, your typical LEGO bin is a poor representation of the world when it comes to a male/female split. I searched as hard as I could for female heads etc, and only ended up with around ten out of the fifty possible minifigs being female. Hopefully this will change soon with things like this letter.

With an average of two potential minifigs per workshop particpant, it meant that there was enough for people to choose from, but not so much that they could keep circling through parts until they found ‘easy options’.

This was important because the participants were asked not to ignore the weird bits on the minifigs they built, but to make them an integral part of that customer through the use of metaphor.

The questions from Empathy Mapping (what are they feeling, doing etc) become the ways in which you get people to create little stories around the minifigs.

Why, for instance, would somebody be carrying a shield?

Or why, for instance, is someone who’s got a belt full of bullets looking so worried and anxious?

At the end of the process, because each team member created a minifig, and the associated stories around them on the Artefact Cards, each team ended up with a really interesting mix of customers and stories in the middle of the table to design solutions for.

The soutions had to take into account that they would be for different types of people, so avoided some of the one-dimensional focus that some Empathy Mapping sessions can result in. But because the types of people were be so wildly different in each team, the teams had to become more creative at thinking about what sort of products they would design for their ‘weird audience’.

Having the little stories on the Artefact Cards proved really useful, as they good be grouped, rearranged, kept and redealt all through the remaining days of the workshop, depending on what form the latest solutions being created would take.

All the ideas that came out by the end were tied back to the users as defined in this exercise, even to the extent that they were used in the majority of the presentations as little ‘user talismen’.

A lot of them now live on the desks of the clients as well, which is a lovely, unintended consequence of the experiment.


I’d be really interested in hearing from others who try this approach out, or who use Empathy Mapping or LEGO for workshops already, as it seems to be both a really fertile and really fun way to think user-first in workshops. We all found it highly productive and playful, and hope you might too.


6 responses to “Empathy Mapping with Lego Figures”

  1. twitter_mikelaurie avatar

    I’ve tried empathy mapping a few times in the past, not with minifigs though (lovely idea). I think this is a brilliant way of engaging organisations in thinking critically about their customers- lots of room for serendipity, it gets people thinking outside of their day-to-day habits and constraints and most importantly it’s massive fun. Where I think it this has limitations is that it can compound our assumptions about customers which are surfaced in the nature of the characters* but without being challenged, these assumptions can be taken on board as fact and accepted by the group.

    I would definitely think this approach could be improved by having your participants meet a handful of real customers before this activity maybe in a World Cafe approach or a ‘speed dating’ kind of format where they get to learn as much as possible about people within a short amount of time.

    I realise, like you mentioned on twitter, that it’s difficult in some circumstances to get people to talk openly about particular topics. But I think this is worth over-coming. I’ve had these kinds of conversations with highly personal topics from puberty to finance to cancer and I’ve found people to be ridiculously open when you approach them in the right way e.g. explain why their opinion matter to you.

    Anyway, that’s my two pence. I don’t mean to be too critical of what is essentially an excellent approach.

    *now this is useful, if we can develop ways of surfacing assumptions in order to convert them into hunches, then that’s progress.

  2. […] Empathy Mapping with Lego Figures | smithery. […]

  3. […] Jestem fanem projektowania rozwiązań oczami użytkowników ekstremalnych i tzw. weirdos, ponieważ zmusza to do patrzenia na problem z zupełnie innej perspektywy niż z punktu widzenia marketingowego „average customer”. A w tym artykule przeczytacie jak do takiego podejścia wykorzystać… figurki LEGO. https://smithery.com/random-inspiration-2/empathy-mapping-with-lego-figures/ […]

  4. […] a final example, have a read of the Smithery post on using LEGO to do empathy mapping. Smart, playful and gets far better […]

  5. Hi John, I found your article a great read. I use a method called LEGO Serious Play to facilitate workshops which helps build team communication, create team strategies/ visions and helps drive innovation. I like the idea of combining these techniques with the empathy mapping exercise to help clients focus on the human centred design approach. Thanks

    1. john v willshire avatar
      john v willshire

      Hey Fiona – thank you, I’m glad you like it. I’ve seen some of the LEGO Serious play stuff in action, it’s terrific – if you try combining them, do let me know how you get on.