Empathy interview

From Community Narrations

Aims of the practice and description of participants

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. The insights you gain from your interviews can be rewarding, but only if you conduct the interview successfully. There are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when conducting an empathy interview, and it will take some practice. 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.

Resources, Materials needed

- Paper.
- Pen.
- Post-its.
- If wanted template empathy map.
- Video or recording devices.


90 minutes.

Step-by-step - what has to be done?

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. The best way is to record the interview as video with a smart phone or other mobile device, however they can conduct as well as audio or written interview. In this case make sure you note as well the body language and other non-visual clues.

Interview in pairs

Remember, empathy interviews should feel conversational. You should look engaged and show interest in what your participant has to say. However, we can all agree that it can be difficult to stay engaged while looking up and down, switching between holding a conversation and taking notes. Interviewing in pairs allows one person to identify areas to dig deeper into the conversation, while the other takes detailed notes about the conversation, including body language. If you’re unable to conduct interviews in pairs, try using a voice recorder you can refer to after the interview.

Follow the story

It’s no surprise that empathy interviews don’t follow a typical question and answer format. For these types of interviews, try not to limit your understanding of a participant by steering them back to the same topic. Any conversation fueled by passion can provide great insights about how they might feel about an issue or cause. Topics that generate emotion for participants are great to follow.

Ask neutral questions

One of the hardest parts of going into an empathy interview is approaching interviews with a fresh perspective. Each question should be asked neutrally. In other words, don’t ask questions in a way that implies there is a correct answer. Incorrect: What frustrations do you have about the new policy? Correct: What do you think about the new policy?
At first glance, the difference between these two questions appear to be minor. However, if you were to compare the answers from these questions against one another, the differences would be significant.

Encourage storytelling

Storytelling allows you to dig deeper by preventing generic responses. It’s said that our previous experiences shape the decisions we make, so continue to ask questions to gain a better understanding about how past events helped mold their current perceptions of the world. Storytelling also helps build the conversation, being that it’s easier for participants to talk about something that’s already happened, rather than comment on an unreal or future experience. Incorrect: Do you like your car? Correct: Tell me about the last time you drove your car.
In the first question, you’re prompting the participant to reply with a simple yes or no, but it doesn’t give you much context into the why. In the second question, you’re prompting the participant to tell you a story about their car. During the participant’s answer to this question, you’ll be able to gather more insights into their experience with their car such as when they use their car, how they feel driving their car, and so on. This answer, as compared to the one you would have gotten out of the first question, also gives you a great starting point to ask strategic and intentional follow-up questions.

Observe body language

Certain gestures and movements can tell you how someone feels without them needing to say it. Therefore, it’s essential to not only take notes about what participants say, but also any non-verbal cues. Some common non-verbal cues you should look for are:
- Crossed-arms
- Abnormal posture
- Facial expressions (i.e. smiles, frowns, etc.)
- Tilted head
- Moving closer
- Eye contact
- Fidgeting or adjusting in their chair
If you see your participant using these non-verbal cues to express a strong reaction to something that was said, leverage it in your interview. Use these non-verbal cues to drive the conversation and your next questions.

Summarising the interviews

Step 1: Revisiting the interviews
When all interviews are recorded and done, revisit them and listen what was said and observe any body language or emotions, which can be detected. Grab some post-it notes and sharpies. The note taker should re-tell the stories and observations captured during the empathy session while writing down all interesting observations, stories, and quotes.
Step 2: craft real need statements
Craft and re-frame the stories and observations documented into real need statements. Take one Post-it for each thought and statement. Create an overview of the main ideas, which can be related to the real needs.
Step 3: share the stories
Once you have the statement down for every empathy session conducted, the next step is to make this knowledge collective. You will have a comprehensive overview which will help you to formulate the needs and ideas of the target group. Each idea can be later reviewed and added to the need assessment.

Learning Outcomes - which skills are addressed?

Understanding needs.

How do you check the outcomes are reached?

Completed interviews and summaries.

Further links/readings