Empathy interviews are the foundation of design thinking, practiced by forward thinking organizations and taught at leading institutions such as the Stanford d.School. Empathy interviews are used to gather insights that otherwise might not be apparent. These insights can then be used to identify issues and generate potential solutions.

An empathy interview uses a human-centered approach to understand the feelings and experiences of others.

The flow of an empathy interview should feel less like an interview, and more like an open conversation with a friend. Unlike a typical interview, preparing a long list of questions and topics to help drive the conversation won’t be useful. With empathy interviews, the goal is to understand users by having an open conversation, not to confirm an idea or insight.

At Zion & Zion, multiple members of our team have been trained in empathy interviewing through extensive on-site programs at Stanford University. From that training, we’ve learned to use empathy interviews as a part of our market research process, helping us better understand consumers’ thought processes, decision triggers, and emotions. These insights allow us to make informed decisions based on participants’ behavior, stories, journeys, and processes, rather than their satisfaction levels, purchase frequency, or brand loyalty.

The Benefits of Empathy Interviewing

How you can benefit from empathy interviews will depend on the reasoning behind wanting to learn more about the mindset of your users. Are you trying to innovate? Are you evolving a current product? Are you creating messaging for a new target market? Do you want to improve your internal processes? All of these questions can be answered by generating ideas and solutions based on insights and observations gathered from empathy interviews.

How to Conduct an Empathy Interview

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.

Based on our own experience conducting empathy interviews on behalf of our clients, here are a few tips to help you plan your interview.

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. However, keep in mind that interviewing in pairs is much better than recording for two reasons. One, interviewees often don’t like to be recorded; and two, a pair of interviewers can discuss the interview afterwards, helping generate additional insights.

Pursue Tangents

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.

Use a Beginner’s Mindset

Never assume you know the answer. Always ask why. Participants won’t typically tell you why they do or say things, so it’s your job to ask. Asking why may even challenge the participant to stop and think about their own actions, since many don’t typically stop to think about why they take certain actions throughout their day.

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.

By asking the first question, you’re suggesting that the participant should have frustrations about the policy to speak to. If the participant does have frustrations about the policy, allow them to express those frustrations on their own by asking a question like the second one listed above. The second question frames the conversation in a much more neutral way. It avoids bias and allows the participant to draw from their own experiences and thoughts. This allows you, as the interviewer, to feel confident knowing that each response is genuine.

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.

Let’s take a look at the example below.

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. It’s true that a yes or no response will answer the obvious question—whether or not they like their car—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 that feeds off a recent experience. 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

If you’ve ever offered someone food they didn’t like, you may have seen the face they make in disgust before they even get a chance to decline. Oftentimes, you don’t need to hear someone say “no thank you” for you to know they don’t want it.

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.

Here are some common non-verbal cues you should look for:

  • 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.

Embrace Silence

Don’t be afraid of silence. Interviewers often feel the need to suggest an answer to a question during a long pause. This can sometimes result in participants giving answers that just agree with your assumptions. A period of silence will happen in an interview, but let the participant break the silence themselves, without you. During long pauses, participants are typically reflecting on something they previously said or experienced, which may provide you with deeper insights.

Avoid Binary Questions

Binary questions can be answered in one word. Avoiding binary questions is a best practice for most interviews but holds especially true when it comes to empathy interviews since you want to dig deep into the minds of others to understand their thoughts and emotions. While sometimes these types of questions are necessary, try to avoid them when possible by sticking to the tips we previously mentioned, such as asking a neutral question or encouraging storytelling.

Now You Try

Use what you’ve learned from this article to start adopting empathy interview techniques into your personal and professional routine. This type of interview will take a lot of practice, so stick with it. After developing your techniques and conducting several empathy interviews, you’ll begin to experience firsthand how understanding thought processes, motives, and emotions can generate challenges and pain points that you never knew existed otherwise.