Conducting an Empathy Interview

Empathy interviews are the foundation of design thinking. By understanding someone’s thoughts and motivations, you have a better understanding of the choices that person will make. By understanding their behavior, you can better identify their needs. This will help the development team create successful products or services for the user.

interview-clipart-research-interview-3An empathy interview uses a human-centered approach to understand the feelings and experiences of others. Empathy interviews gather insights that may not be apparent without conducting this kind of interview. These insights can then be used to help identify problems or needs to further aid in developing potential solutions.

To create a product or service that is successful with its target audience, it’s important to know the story of the user. Stories help you connect and empathize. They reveal the inner insights and feelings that the development team could only understand by having an interaction with the user. An empathy interview should feel less like an interview, and more like a conversation with a friend or coworker. The goal is to understand the users. The interview will help you comprehend the users’ thought processes, decision triggers, and emotions. These insights will further assist you in making informed decisions based on their behavior, rather than their satisfaction level, purchase frequency, or brand loyalty.

Understanding the user

The user wants to feel like they are being heard and valued. As the interviewer, you need to be an active listener and encourage storytelling. Storytelling allows the interviewer to dig deeper while preventing generic responses. It helps build the conversation as the user talks about experiences rather than opinions. For example, instead of saying “Do you like your car?” try saying “Tell me about the last time you drove your car.” This lets the user know you are interested in what they have to say while telling you their story.

Empathy interviews allow the users to speak about what is important to them. It will help focus on the emotional and subconscious aspect of the user to gain insights on how the user behaves in given situations. The interview may reveal solutions you might not have discovered or help you see needs or challenges you might have overlooked. The interview should make the user feel at ease so they speak from the heart with honest feedback. Additionally, this will also give the interviewer an opportunity to view body language which allows for spontaneous questions base on observations.

Preparing for an Empathy Interview 

To conduct an interview, you should prepare a script as a guide. During the interview, if something comes up that is not on the script, you can explore further beyond what you have prepared. A good opening script introduces a few key things quickly and succinctly:

  1. Yourself / Yourselves
  2. The date, location, and purpose of the workshop
  3. Why you’re the one performing this interview and what role people are playing
  4. The conditions of privacy and anonymity surrounding the event
  5. A request for their permission/comfort to continue the interview

The questions that you prepare beforehand should induce useful and thoughtful responses. You don’t want to ask yes or no questions as these will not give you insight as to why they feel this way. Your questions should be part of a conversation asking them to tell you more about how they feel and why they feel this way. Interviewers should be doing more than just listening and recording. They should be observing their users’ body language, tone and following up on responses that need further explanation.

If you get stuck, ask “why?” Asking why digs deeper into emotion and motivation. This will 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?”

Three important things to remember as you think about your script:

  • 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.


Remember to be fully present and truly there. Have a way to record the interview so that you can focus all of your attention on what they are saying. Always ask “why?” Their answer may reveal aspects that you had not considered. This can lead to solutions you did not anticipate.

Empathy interviews are about having an authentic conversation with the user. This allows you to understand emotions, motivation and the choices the user makes. The findings will help you understand what their needs are and aide in your design to create a better user experience.

And always: Observe, engage, immerse.


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