Tool Share: Empathy Interviews

I’ve always thought marketing was a discipline that lent itself nicely to design thinking and other human-centered methodologies. Whether your goal is to increase brand awareness or drive conversions, the more you know who you’re speaking with, where they are and how to speak to them, the more likely you’ll be successful. And, to build a comprehensive understanding of the who, where and how, research is the name of the game.

I’ve done a ton of market research in my career and employed a variety of tools in the process—analytics, surveys, focus groups, field visits, the list goes on and on. Over my career—and to this day—my favorite tool still is the empathy interview.

I’m driven and motivated by human interaction. And there’s nothing like sitting across from a potential client, partner or colleague to explore what motivates them, what frustrates them or what brings them happiness and joy. Because I’m able to deeply connect with that individual’s story, it makes the data I collect all the more meaningful and enriching.

So, why am I talking about Empathy Interviews?

Aside from the fact that I’m currently conducting a ton of them for TDG’s consumer ethnography study (blog post on that to come soon!), you may have heard—Facilitating Design Thinking is back!

This workshop is a bit different from our other content. For one, not only are you going to learn a variety of different tools for building empathy and unearthing insights, you’re also going to learn how to facilitate others in the implementation of those tools—oh, and did I mention: while you’re facilitating your workshop team, you all will actually be solving a gnarly-and-awesome, real challenge that our partner Burton, is currently facing.

In anticipation of the workshop, a few members of our team will be sharing their favorite tools and how to go about using them. And, I get to kick things off. So, without further ado, let’s dive into Empathy Interviews.

What are Empathy Interviews?

Empathy Interviews are conversations with the people who are impacted by what you are designing—the end-users, the surrounding stakeholders, and even your teammates who will help you produce the final outcome. These interviews allow your team to move beyond simply observing behaviors and making inferences to deeply understanding someone’s hopes, fears and motivations.


30-60 min.

Interview Subjects, 1 Interviewer, 1 Note-taker (Don’t have access to a note-taker? Ask permission to record the interview and then hire a transcription service to transcribe the audio.)

Note-taking supplies, interview guide, video or audio recorder

When Should You Use Empathy Interviews

The more time you spend with your customers, stakeholders and close collaborators, the more empathetic your approach to solutions will be. However, there are some key moments in most projects where leveraging Empathy Interviews can have a particularly big impact.

Consider this tool when you need to:
  • Learn about a new audience
  • Kick off a new project
  • Follow up on field research
  • Check your assumptions about a user


1. Recruit Research Participants

Unless you’ve got an open-ended project (not likely), you want to be talking to actual customers or people who fit the profile of would-be users.

We’ve gotten creative on how we do that. We’ve reached out to current and past client contacts and partners, folks we want to be working with, former workshop attendees, email unsubscribers, silent newsletter readers, and even connections of our connections who have never heard of us.

2. Write Your Interview Guide

An interview guide is your game plan for the questions you want to ask before you begin talking to your research participants. There is a TON that goes into writing these guides. Most important pieces of advice: Keep in mind the arch of your conversation and get creative with what you want to ask and how you ask it.

3. Practice

Practice interviewing your teammates to become familiar with the guide. Test out the questions, ask for feedback, and determine the amount of time you’ll need.

4. During the Interview

Your interview guide should be just that—a guide. It’s ok to deviate, and it’s ok to come back to specific questions you need to ask. Remember, active listening, eye contact and welcoming body language are essential to good interviewing. (Even if you’re not asking questions!)

Be sure to ask “Anything else?” at the end! Many times, this is when you’ll get the most honest information.

5. After the Interview

Review the notes, looking for the “greatest hits” in terms of quotes that are interesting and relevant to your research question. Then, capture them on post it notes. Include the person’s name and any other helpful information. Share out with your team to get aligned–don’t forget the emotion involved with each quote!

Some Helpful Resources

Channeling Your Inner Barbara Walters: Mastering the Interview
5 Tips for Achieving Emergent Listening
4 Ways to Listen to Your Stakeholders
Stop doing user interviews. Start having conversations.

So, now that you know about the tool, come hang out with us on May 7-8.learn how to facilitate it
(and get some reps in practicing it).
Jane Garcia Buhks
[email protected]
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