Interview for Empathy

Interview for empathy is a quick guide to performing an interview to inform design research. Rather than assume what someone wants, why not ask them? This method builds rapport and gets the stakeholder to tell stories that illuminate their hopes and fears.

When to use it?
Look: Interviewing for empathy is useful at the outset of a systemic design inquiry to elicit latent needs and empathize with diverse stakeholder perspectives. If the team identifies a gap later in the inquiry, this method can also be used then to bring new voices into the project.

How to do it?

  1. Prepare open ended questions. For example, “What are you hearing about X?”

  2. Ask questions that encourage storytelling. For example, “Tell me about a time that you did X in the last month” or “What were your best and worst experiences with X?”

  3. Listen for surprises. What differences and inconsistencies are revealed? Is there a gap between what people say and do, or between formal structures and actual behaviour? What workarounds have they developed to make the system work in spite of itself?

  4. Allow silences. Silences enable reflection and may lead to deeper revelations.

  5. Limit questions to ten words.

Always interview in pairs so that one person can ask the questions and another can take notes. More than two people in an interview situation can be intimidating.

15 – 30 minutes. Keep it brief.

Pros and Cons

  • Low overhead way to appreciate diverse perspectives on an issue.
  • Elicits stories which are rich in insight.


  • People will not always be able to articulate what they do, so be wary of drawing strong conclusions unless you have also observed their behaviour.
  • This method will not produce statistically significant results – the sample sizes are low and the questions are intended to elicit qualitative data.


  • Interview in a time and place that are convenient to the interviewee.
  • If the interviewee asks you questions, try to redirect the question back on the interviewee. You already know your own opinion. For example, in response to “How will this policy be implemented?” ask “How do you think it should be implemented?”
  • Thank the participant for their time.
  • Get together as soon as possible following the interview to reflect on what stood out.


Insert photo of Eleanor interviewing Alex here.

​Additional Resources

Stanford Bootcamp Bootleg

Viget User Interview Tips