Putting the Human in "Human-Centered Design"

 Getting Started with Empathy Interviews

Getting Started with Empathy Interviews

I was initially drawn to design thinking or “human-centered design” as it is sometimes called because the starting point was so much different than almost every other problem-solving process I had experienced.  This one actually starts with people!  It doesn’t start with a pre-cooked idea,  a top-down directive or an already tried solution.  It starts by spending time with people to really understand needs from their perspective.  This simple difference is what excited me, but it is also what scares some people from truly embracing design thinking. We all know, engaging with humans can be messy.

There are a number of ways to dig into the needs of your end user, but one of the simplest ways is to talk to people. I am constantly amazed at how much I learn from others through conversation and how much others are willing to share if I create the right conditions for the conversation.   Most people love to talk, especially if you touch on a topic of interest.  And since design thinking is all about solving problems, most people find being a part of a solution (especially to a problem they too experience) interesting.

If you are contemplating using design thinking, I would encourage you to start talking to people and practicing what we call “empathy interviews.”  It might be scary at first, but I promise it will get easier.  And as Tiny Fey said in Bossypants, “ You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide overthinking it.  You have to go down the chute.”  Below are a few steps to help you stop overthinking it and get you started with your first empathy interview.

  • What are you curious about?  Think about the problem you are trying to solve.  What makes it an interesting problem?  Perhaps there are already solutions out there, but the problem still exists.  Why?
  • Whose problem is this?  Who will benefit when you solve this problem?  This will help you identify your end user and get you thinking about who you need to talk to.

  • Who will you interview? Brainstorm a possible list of people that might have interesting insights on your topic.  Don’t forget to include “extreme users” — those who might have experienced your problem in a drastic way or those who may have never experienced your problem. Some of our most interesting insights have come from extreme users

  • Pick a Design Partner. Conducting empathy interviews is always more fun with a friend.  Select someone who is invested in helping to solve your problem and willing to help.  This way one of you can do the interviewing and the other can capture notes.  Try to capture exact phrases and don’t forget to watch the body language.

  • Schedule Your Interviews.  Allow for a minimum of 30 minutes for an interview, sometimes it takes the first 15 minutes just to establish rapport and get the conversation flowing.  

  • Plan Your Questions. When planning your questions and interview prompts, keep in mind these types of interviews are meant to draw out stories and evoke emotions.  These are not hiring interviews where you must ask everyone the same set of questions.  Plan a general outline and let the interview go where there is energy.
  1. Encourage Stories. Stories reveal how people think about the world.
  2. Avoid usually, always and rarely. Ask about specific instances, such as “tell me about the last time you___________.

  3. Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, try asking people why they do or say the things they do; sometimes the answers will surprise you.

  • Interview. Enjoy the interview.  The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your interviewee will be in sharing their experiences. Don’t be scared of silence, some of the deeper responses come after a moment of thought and reflection.

  • Synthesize & Reflect.  After you have completed your interviews, take some time to reflect and digest all that you learned.  How will this new information impact your next steps?

To make this even easier, try downloading the Empathy Interview Template.  It has everything you need to conduct a successful interview.  I can’t wait to hear what problem you are solving, who you are talking to and what you learn!