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Ask yourself: is the product or service you’re designing truly relevant for the people who 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 interviewed.

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?

What Are Empathy Interview Questions?

Let’s back up a moment. Before we go further, let’s define what empathy interview questions are.

Empathy interview questions are a key part of design thinking, a methodology that fundamentally revolves around understanding the user. These interviews are not your typical Q&A sessions. Instead, they’re a deep dive into the user’s experiences, feelings, motivations, and challenges.

The essence of an empathy interview lies in its name: empathy. It’s about stepping into the shoes of your user and seeing the world from their perspective. This approach differs markedly from traditional market research. Where market research often focuses on quantifiable data, empathy interviews seek to uncover the qualitative, emotional, and human elements of the user experience.

In the context of design thinking, these interviews are essential. They help designers and developers create products and services that genuinely resonate with the users. It’s not just about solving a problem. It’s about understanding why that problem matters to the user and how it affects them. This understanding can lead to more innovative, user-centered solutions that might not have been obvious at first glance.

Empathy interviews are guided by open-ended questions as well. These questions are designed to encourage users to share their stories and experiences in their own words. The goal is to elicit insights about the user’s needs and desires, which are often unspoken or even unrecognized by the users themselves.

The Importance of Empathy Interviews

In case it wasn’t already abundantly clear, 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 into how users behave in given environments and situations.
  4. Empathic questioning 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. Empathy interview questions make 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.
empathy interviewsempathy interviews
Empathy interview questions can make all the difference.

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 that most are accustomed to.

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

A Quick Pre-Empathy Interview Checklist

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, first 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 some questions 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 listen and record. They observe their subject’s body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms, and they also follow up on responses that need further explanation.

According to d.School, to empathize, you need 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 Empathy Interview Question?

You must 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 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. This won’t work for empathy questioning as it leads the interview subject and won’t provide helpful insights. 

What Constitutes a Good Interview Question?

Ask questions that trigger delightful emotions. 

Here’s an example:

  • Interviewer: Tell me about delightful moments you experienced when you went biking.

This question encourages the user to share more, yes. But you also get to:

  • Observe their emotional responses.
  • Observe their facial expression and mannerisms.
  • Hear stories of what led them to their hobby.
  • Learn what they like about their hobbies.
  • Understand 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 also allows the interviewer to ask the user to clarify what they mean in particular instances. The possibilities are endless.

You can also ask “show me” questions or requests, like:

Show me how you use your scheduling app?

Or

If you’re meeting up with friends, show me how you’d introduce them to this app?

Asking to be shown, or walked through, lets them tell a story and it allows you to pull out your design thinking empathy tools.

Create a Comfortable Atmosphere for Your Empathy Questions

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 using design thinking empathy interview questions:

  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Introduce your project.
  3. Shift your focus to the interviewee (ask name and 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 the use of hands and facial expressions.
  11. Don’t suggest answers to your design thinking discussion questions.
  12. Ask neutral design thinking prompts 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?”, “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?” can all work well.
  16. Thank them and wrap things up.

Things to Remember for Successful Empathy Interviews

  • 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.
  • Interview in pairs. One can ask questions whilst the other takes notes. You can take turns. Group empathy interviews can work, too.
  • Use a permission form for taking photographs.
  • Use release documents for the interviewee to sign.
  • Also, explain how the person’s data and any data you collect will be used from the empathy interview.
  • Leave 30 minutes or so between each empathy interview. This gives the interviewer some time to make additional notes and compile their thoughts while everything is still fresh in their mind.

Conducting Empathy Interviews for Design Thinking the Right Way

Empathy interviews are about having authentic conversations 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 may be 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. And that’s why empathy interviews in design thinking are so important. They get at what’s just beneath the surface. 

Research Citations and Sources for Further Reading

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