Empathy interviews are the cornerstone of Design Thinking. By entering and
understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, we can understand the choices that person makes, we can understand their behavioral traits, and we are able identify their needs. This helps us innovate, and create products or services for that person.

Ask yourself: is the product or service
you’re designing truly relevant for the people that are supposed to use it?

To create a product or service that satisfies its target audience,
it’s important to know the story of your customer. Stories help us connect, relate
and empathize. Stories reveal personal insights and feelings that the designer
can only be aware of by interacting with the potential user.

Your Own Experience of Empathy Interviews

Believe it or not you have partaken in many empathy interviews over the course of time. For example, let’s say you are feeling ill. You take a day off. You go to a
doctor’s appointment. In order to give the correct diagnosis to your problem,
the doctor conducts an interview. You are now the user being

Now imagine you are explaining your problem to the doctor, whose
attention is fully focused on texting on his cellphone, but tells you: “keep
talking, I’m listening, I can hear you”.

The doctor is not present. He is distracted. He is listening
without hearing. He could end up giving you the wrong diagnosis. You leave
angry, frustrated, dissatisfied.

Think about that for a second. What do the actions of that
doctor tell you?

  • Are you really important to that doctor?
  • Does your life even
    matter to the doctor?
  • Can you trust them?
  • Do you feel heard? Where is the empathy?

The Importance of Empathy Interviews

Being on the receiving end of empathy is to feel heard. To feel heard is to
feel valued. An empathy interview is about active listening and active
hearing. The following points highlight their importance:

  1. Empathy interviews allow users to speak about what is important to them.
  2. They focus on the emotional and subconscious aspects of the user.
  3. They allow interviewers to gain insights on how users behave in given environments and situations.
  4. They can reveal solutions you might not have discovered otherwise, or unmet needs and challenges you might be overlooking.
  5. Empathy interviews are about getting deeper and going beyond your run of the mill questions.
  6. They’re about making the subject feel at ease so he or she can shed the mask and speak from the heart.
  7. They offer interviewers a chance to observe body language and reactions of the subjects. This allows for spontaneous questions based on observations.

How to Select Subjects for an Empathy Interview

When choosing subjects to interview focus on averages, middles,
and especially extremes.

Products are not designed for one person only. When
conducting interviews and research one needs to balance complex and often
contradictory sets of needs. To determine what these varied and contradictory
needs are, you need to cast a wide net when selecting subjects for interviews.

Averages and middles fall within the mainstream. They are more predictable in their choices and
tastes. The extremes fall outside of the mainstream. They have an outlook that does not fit comfortably within the
predictable spectrum of needs most are accustomed to.

Why do we need the extremes? Extremes are especially important because they give us uncommon
insights that allow us freedom to deviate from the common wisdom and push beyond obvious solutions.

Four Questions

Here are some questions to ask yourself before selecting subjects for empathy interviews.

  1. How many people do I need to interview?
  2. Who do I recruit?
  3. How do I know who the target customer is?
  4. How do I recruit the people to interview?

How do You Conduct an Empathy Interview? 

To conduct an interview, firstly prepare a question script as a guide. During the interview, if something comes up that is not on the script, you can explore the idea on the fly.

Some questions might only earn you a single response. But there are questions which bring out an answer filled with useful insights. Asking questions that get you a useful and thoughtful answer is a skill one learns through constant practice.

Interviewers, however, do more than just listening and recording. They observe their subject’s body language, tone of voice, mannerisms, and they also follow up on responses that need further explanation.

According to d.School, in order to empathize, one is required to do the following:

  • Immerse: experience what users experience.
  • Observe: view users and their behaviors in the contexts of their lives.
  • Engage: interact with and interview users through schedules and “intercept” encounters.

What Constitutes a Bad Interview Question?

It’s important you ask questions that allow the interviewee/users to give long answers. Never push your thoughts on the interviewee. Be mindful that open-ended questions can be good, but sometimes they can be too broad.

Here is an example where you can really only expect one answer: Yes or No

  • Interviewer: Do you like swimming? 
  • User: No 
  • Interviewer: How about tennis? 
  • User: No 
  • Interviewer: I play tennis. You should try it. Have you ever thought about trying tennis?
  • User: No 

You’ll notice how in the last question the interviewer tries to insert his/her values in the interview.

What Constitutes a Good Interview Question?

Ask questions that trigger delightful emotion. 

For example: Tell me about delightful moments you experienced when you went biking? This question encourages the user to share more. You get to observe their emotional responses, you get to observe their facial expression and mannerism, you get to hear stories of what led them to their hobby, what they like about their hobbies, what kind of routines they have. A question of this nature opens doors to personal revelations that will prove useful to the design process. It opens up a chance for the interviewer to ask follow-up questions based on particular responses. It allows the interviewer to ask the user to clarify what they mean in particular instances… the possibilities are endless…

Ask “show me” questions, like: Show me how you use your scheduling app? Or: You’re meeting friends, show me how you’d introduce them to this app? Asking to be shown, or walked through, lets them tell a story,

Create a Comfortable Atmosphere

As an interviewer you want a place familiar to the user, where the user is comfortable, surrounded by objects that represent them. This will make them feel relaxed and allow them to open up. It could be a place where they spend most of their time, like in their house or their office. If you see something in the house that intrigues you ask the user the story of the item; this will help them open up.

Well, she’s comfy

An Example Method of Empathy Interviewing

These quick bullets take you through what is an effective method for interviewing:

  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Introduce your project.
  3. Shift your focus to the interviewee (ask name, where they come from).
  4. Build rapport.
  5. Ask about specific instances or occurrences (“Tell me about the last time..”)
  6. Keep questions to fewer than ten words.
  7. Ask one question at a time.
  8. Encourage stories.
  9. Look for inconsistencies and contradictions; what people say and what they do can be very different.
  10. Observe non-verbal cues, such as use of hands, facial expressions.
  11. Don’t suggest answers to your questions.
  12. Ask neutral questions like “What do you think about…?”
  13. Explore emotions like “Why do you feel…?” “What do you feel about…?”
  14. Question statements.
  15. If you get stuck, ask “why?” Constantly asking why digs deeper into emotion and
    motivation. These help you understand
    user behavior and identify needs.
    “Why did you do/say/think that?”
    “Really? And why was that?”
    “Can you say more about that?”
    “Tell me more.”
    “And what were you feeling then?”
  16. Thank them and wrap things up.

Things to Remember

  • Always have a beginner’s mindset.
  • Suspend your judgments. You’re not there to judge. Keep an
    open mind. Openness is a mindset that is required.

  • Be fully present. Be truly there. Someone can tell if you’d
    rather be elsewhere. Show each interviewee they are the most interesting, person
    you have ever met.

  • Silence all devices. Do not look at
    your texts or answer phone calls.
  • Always bring a voice recorder to document the
  • Interview in pairs. One can ask questions whilst the other takes notes. You can take turns.
  • Use a permission form for taking photographs.
  • Use release documents for interviewee to sign.
  • Also explain how the person’s data and any data you collect will be used from the interview.
  • Leave 30 minutes or so between each interview. This gives the
    interviewer some time to make additional notes and compile their
    thoughts while everything is still fresh in their mind.


Empathy interviews are about having authentic conversation with the interviewee.

Empathy interviews allow you to understand emotions, motivation and choices the user makes. These in turn allow you to become familiar with their needs and design to satisfy them.

It’s important to go out and meet your interviewee in an environment that is familiar to them.

Observe, engage, immerse.

Always ask “why?” Even when you think you know the answer you maybe
surprised by a completely different answer that reveals aspects you may
not have considered. These could, in turn, lead you to solutions you did
not anticipate.

Research Citations and Sources for Further Reading

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