User empathy – personal experiences with wallets

The first stage of design thinking relates to empathising with users – understanding their needs, motivations, thoughts and feelings.

For our project we interviewed volunteers from the university as well as observing or interviewing people in external environments and researching friends and family connections.

For the in-depth interview I chatted with Mike, a 38 year old male visual arts student. After getting to know him briefly, I asked him to show me his wallet so we could use that to chat about how he uses it and what he feels about it.

Mike has a traditional men’s black leather wallet, containing various payment cards, licence, ID cards, notes, paper money, receipts, a photo, loyalty cards, transport cards, and tickets. It’s quite bulky and he keeps it in his pocket, together with any loose coins (which he hates).

He said he sees his wallet as an extension of his personality, a link to memories as well as a practical way to store stuff and pay for things. Although his phone is set up with ApplePay, he tends not to use it, trusting plastic cards instead.

After talking through a few questions, I drew up an ’empathy map’, which attempts to document what a user says, does, thinks and feels.


Although Mike says he wants low hassle, and complains of bulky pockets, this seems to be outweighed by the reassurance he gets from having a wallet full of practical stuff and memories. His wallet is always with him and he would be quite concerned if he lost it, mainly due to the hassle involved in replacing ID items, as an international student. He probably does not know what his wallet contains at any point in time, so could benefit from a way of helping him remember what’s in it, or a way of reducing the stress if he ever were to lose his wallet.


In relation to Mike’s experience with his wallet, I would say his personal needs are:

  • feel safe, secure
  • be comforted and reassured
  • prove who he is
  • be able to pay for things easily
  • save money when he can (eg with loyalty/discount cards)
  • connect with people, places, memories

Other user research

I also observed people using wallets in the wild (well, in stores, cafes and train stations!) and made notes about my observations following a who/what/why format.

Who What Why
Man approx 45 yrs old wearing high-vis work clothes Reaches for small card-size wallet in trouser pocket. Pays with card Doesn’t want to carry a lot while at work – just what he needs for the day
Woman approx 50yrs old, dressed for work, wearing jogging shoes Carries two handbags. Extracts a long, zipped pink purse from one bag and pays with cash Likes things to be in their place, compartmentalised. Likes cash because you can see what you spend
Woman approx 30yrs old Reaches into a zipped jacket pocket; takes bank card out to pay for lunch Wants easy access to payment card without needing wallet; concerned about carrying valuables around
Man approx 65yrs old Reaches into back pocket of trousers; takes out black leather wallet and pays with cash for lunch Reassured by wallet in his pocket; doesn’t have a bag to put it in; finds spending cash more real than cards especially for smaller amounts
Below are images from wallet research of classmates and family members, showing the different styles and uses of wallets.

The image below is the result of a quick braindump of thoughts we wrote onto sticky notes as a way of capturing insights and observations.

user insights on sticky notes
A wall of post-it notes capturing insights from user research on wallets

Defining the problem

In the second stage of our design thinking project we tried to define the problem or problems we were trying to solve. We used insights from the empathy stage to determine ways of looking at the problem from a human perspective and restating it as a design challenge that can be addressed in the ideation stage. In order to do this, we needed to synthesise insights and turn them into a more focused statement. The table below takes two of the users I researched, and outlines a need and insight for each.

User Need Insight
Pound, a 22 year old design student who lives in central Brisbane To keep essential things with him and know that valuable items are safe He has an everyday wallet and keeps important stuff that’s not needed every day in a separate wallet at home
Mike, a 38 year old MA student who lives in Brisbane A way of keeping ID cards, memorabilia, notes and financial items safe and carrying them with him He keeps a lot of things in his wallet and may not remember what they are if he lost his wallet. He would be stressed by the hassle of replacing wallet contents.

After considering the users, needs and insights, we worked towards framing a problem statement or Point of View (PoV) based on a user persona. We were then ready to start looking at ideas to solve the design challenge. This stage is covered in my next blog post about the ideation stage.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *