design thinking

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!


Picture Books to Build Design Thinking Mindsets


It might be the elementary teacher (or child) in me but I have always loved picture books.  Even as an adult, when I read an outstanding picture book I smile with sheer delight.  They make me happy.  I especially love sharing picture books that inspire creativity, taking risks and being brave—all of which tie directly to design thinking.

I was delighted this week to receive Kobi Yamada’s newest book in the mail, “What Do You Do With a Chance?” Reading this book prompted me to pull out some other favorites, including Yamada’s two previous picture books. Below are my (current) favorite pictures books that inspire creativity and can be used to build design thinking mindsets with both students and adults.

My Current Top Ten (in no particular order):

  1. What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada  This is the story of how one idea gets brought to life by a child.  The idea lingers, but when the child’s confidence grows so does the idea. This book inspires you to nurture ideas, let them grow and then unleash them.

  2. What Do You Do With a Problem?  by Kobi Yamada In this book, you are faced with a problem but encouraged to look beyond the constraints of the problem and actually see that every problem has opportunities embedded. The longer the problem is ignored, the bigger it gets, but once faced it turns out to be something quite different than expected.

  3. What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada  In this newest book, a child encounters a chance but isn’t sure what to do with it.  After ignoring chances, they stop coming around full stop.  This book encourages you to say yes to new experiences, take chance and be brave.

  4. The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires  Every creator or inventor knows how beautiful but messy the process of creating can be.  We may have a beautiful idea but things don’t always go as planned, we mess up and things don’t work out.  The Most Magnificent Thing illustrates both the beauty and the frustration in the process and reminds us all that sometimes we need to step back and relax to get a new perspective.

  5. Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg  This simple, colorful, pop-out board book helps you celebrate mistakes and turn them into something beautiful.  This book has a beautiful playful spirit that will have to you turning coffee stains into art doodles in no time.

  6. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis  Have you ever seen how excited children are when given large cardboard boxes?  If not, you are missing out.  Boxes become rocket ships, NASA stations, and forts with a little tape and a few sharpies.  This book reminds us that a cardboard cube is anything but a box.

  7. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken With very few words, this book illustrates in a playful way how mistakes can be turned into something new and beautiful.  It is always a great reminder that most everything is a work in progress, including ourselves.

  8. After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat  We all know the story of Humpty Dumpty, but have you ever wondered why Humpty was sitting on that wall and what happens to him after the fall? This fun book explores what it means to face our fears and press on despite setbacks.

  9. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers  The author shares a very personal look at his own hopes and dreams for his child’s life here on earth.  Humorous and beautiful, it is a great reminder that we are all in this together and will appeal to the do-gooder in you.

  10. Going Places by Peter Reynolds A school go-cart contest inspires children to build the latest go-cart, but who says you have to follow the directions out of the box?  Maya doesn’t.  She builds a go-cart that is very different from the rest of the students and crosses the finish line in her own way. This book celebrates thinking outside the box, the creative spirit and going against the grain.

If you think picture books are just for children, picking up anyone of the books listed above is guaranteed to change your mind.  We are all in need of a little beauty, inspiration and fun, sometimes a picture book is the perfect way to deliver that.  I’d love to hear if you have a favorite picture book that inspires and nurtures your creative spirit. Your recommendation just might make me update my own top ten list.