Channeling Your Inner Barbara Walters: Mastering the Interview

You’ve got your brief and you know exactly what problem you’re going to tackle. Now your task is to develop a deeper understanding of that problem—the crucial first step on the way to a solution. At The Design Gym, we refer to this first step in the design thinking process as the Examine Phase; others, like Stanford’s d.School or IDEO, refer to it as the Empathy or Empathize Phase. Whatever name you choose, this phase is absolutely critical for setting a design thinking project up for success.

One of the most effective ways to gather information in the Examine Phase is through qualitative research, such as interviews. As you know, Design Thinking is a human-centered methodology, so it makes sense that interviews would be a good way to learn what you need to know. And, we all have experience conducting interviews. They’re simple—go out, talk to a human and learn what you need to know—right?

As individuals who’ve botched more than one interview, we’ve learned it’s a bit more complicated than that. You can’t (and shouldn’t) assume that you’ll walk into an interview and all the information you need will naturally flow right out—you have to learn to ask the right questions so that the answers you get are valuable and insightful. So, how do we conduct a productive interview and get the insights we need? We’ve put together some tips and tools (based on our experience and what we teach in our Design Thinking Bootcamp) that we hope you’ll find helpful.

Be Prepared

It’s not just a Boy Scout motto. The first step to a successful interview is thorough preparation. A great tool to start out with is a Research Plan or Research Map. A Research Map is going to help you organize what it is you want to learn, how you plan on learning it, and from whom you’d like to learn it.


Your Research Map doesn’t need to be beautiful. All you need to do is gather your team in a room for 30 minutes and write your design challenge in the middle. Then ask people to shout out all the topics you’d need to learn about to better solve your challenge. Cluster the topics into major themes. Then ask the team to map out who you would go to in order to learn those things, and which research methods would be best suited to get you that information (ex. interviews, observations, shadows, camera journals, etc…). Here’s an example of a Research Map we created in a session.


This groundwork is super important to setting up an effective interview process, but remember that you’re dealing with humans and that you may need to be flexible. Have a backup plan in case your original interview strategy or participants don’t work out the way that you hoped.

Plan The Right Questions

Before you start interviewing, use a discussion guide as a planning tool. A discussion guide is a document that organizes questions around key themes captured from your secondary research (keep an eye out for our future post on how to create one). When writing your questions, remember to keep them open-ended and encourage storytelling. If your interviewee can answer in the form of a narrative, you get a more complete picture of what matters to them.

Once you have your discussion guide put together, it’s time to practice. We highly recommend doing some practice rounds, either with colleagues, friends, family, or through a low-cost research recruit (such as through a platform like Craigslist). Really important: your discussion guide is not meant to be a checklist of questions, but rather a guide to keep you on track as your conversation during the interview evolves. Really try using it that way while conducting your practice interviews.

TDG Tip: You’re likely to encounter (prolonged) silence at one point, in at least one interview. Fight the natural human instinct to fill those pauses. That’s right, be comfortable with silence. By giving your interviewee ample time to respond, you’re less likely to derail their train of thought and lose valuable insights. Don’t worry, they’ll jump back in when they’re ready or they’ll ask you for help to better understand the question (if they need it).

Set The Scene

Interviews can be stressful for everyone involved, so you’ll need to make sure your interviewees are as comfortable as possible. Meet them on their turf, in a place where they feel safe and in control. Kick off the interview with a simple warm greeting and start off with lighter topics to let the interviewee warm up and to build the appropriate rapport.

Set context right up front about who is in the room, what each person’s role is, and the general arc (of questions) you’ll be taking them on. Don’t tell them exactly what your design brief is, but give them a high level topic (ex. learning about people’s daily transportation habits). Finally, don’t be afraid to set the room up to ensure you get the right documentation you need. Don’t be afraid to ask to turn lights on, shut down loud or distracting appliances, or to adjust seating in the interview room. All of these will ensure a great audio/video capture afterwards.

Use The Buddy System

The information you get from an interview goes far beyond the words your interviewees say. You can learn from their phrasing, their body language, and their emotional reactions to the issues you’re discussing. If you’re just listening and taking notes, you’re going to miss something. That’s why you should always interview in pairs. One of you can ask the questions and the other can take notes and operate the audio/video recorders, if you’re using them. By removing notetaking from your responsibilities, you’re allowing yourself to really focus on the interview process, resulting in the level of empathy required for a good interview.

Don’t have the manpower to use the buddy system? That’s ok! You can set up your own recording equipment or even use a smartphone. However you decide to capture the interview, you should always double-check that your technology is working properly. There’s nothing worse than walking away from an interview to find out that your phone was recording audio from your paired bluetooth headset a room away. (True story—it happened to one of our team members!)

After your interviews, circle back up with your team right away to talk about what you learned. Get the key takeaways on paper immediately and then revisit your notes and records to draw out more details. You can use color-coded post-it notes to capture the essential themes and most compelling stories and start to visually organize the information you gathered. Sketching is another great way to visualize your data and begin the process of distilling it. The trick is to do it quickly, while the information and stories are still fresh in your mind.

Conducting an awesome interview is by no means easy. But the good news is it’s absolutely an acquirable skill. Speaking from experience, with more and more practice it becomes easier and easier. Remember, the key to any interview (and the key to design thinking in general) is understanding humans. With the right amount of prep time and consideration, becoming an interview rockstar is totally achievable.


The Design Gym
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