Empathy interview questions for product design

By Rob Brodell, Jyoti Bhardwaj, Danthanh Tran, Eugene Ghimire and Susan Price

Updated January 12, 2024

Defining user-centered system design and use cases

In 1985, long before digital products ruled most marketplaces, the industry-defining book User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction advocated gathering user input on a computer system’s purpose during the design stage to ensure the system’s ultimate success. Three and a half decades later, this user-centric approach isn't just advisable – it's a cornerstone of modern digital product design. Today, we’re focused on maximizing user-centric design approaches in building our products.

Empathy interviewing is one way to maximize user-centric design by providing the product team with deep insights into users and their experiences. This approach does not simply entail a “customer is always right” attitude. Rather, empathy interviewing acknowledges that users experience unique emotions and desires when faced with problems they alone cannot solve.  Developing products with a user-centric design mindset necessitates recognizing that customers use your product because it provides a feel-good solution to a specific problem they face.

This specific problem may be as innocuous as boredom.  Who knew that crushing virtual candies would give users the benefit of enjoying themselves while passing time?  Thankfully, someone developed an empathetic enough understanding of boredom to recognize the potential of Candy Crush and similar mobile games.

Conversely, complex problems related to financial management require nuanced solutions.  What goes into developing banking apps that replicate the services of a brick-and-mortar branch?  That depends on what your customers need. They may prefer for you to focus on minimizing frustrations ranging from time spent waiting in line, or lightening the burdensome nature of financial paperwork.  This requires an empathetic understanding of multiple different customer experiences. 

In each scenario, empathy interviews enable the development team to understand customer sentiments about their challenges and potential solutions before committing significant resources to a particular solution.

Cultivating an empathetic mindset in digital product design

Conducting several successful empathy interviews can provide a lot of great data on your customer’s problems and the validity of your proposed solutions.  You can leverage this data to develop appealing products. But surfacing an individual’s emotions in an empathy interview takes practice. Interviewers need to learn to ask the right questions at the right time to retrieve insightful information.  This starts with a mentality focused on "empathy" instead of "interview." Customers should not be sweating under a light at the police station. Rather, they should feel like they are hanging out with inquisitive colleagues. After all, you are trying to help them solve problems so they should trust you enough to share the way those problems and your solutions make them feel.  If they don’t, then why would they ever use your product?

Once you buy into the empathetic mentality needed for user interviews the rest of this article will give you a brief outline of how the process works.  It includes several actionable tips throughout to boost your chances of success.

Crafting your empathy interview blueprint

Questionnaire creation: The process commences by pinpointing exactly what you aim to discern. A detailed list of questions is indispensable, whether it's to understand broad customer behaviors or specific interactions with your digital product design. Initiate by asking interviewees about their daily routines. This sets a relaxed tone and spotlights relevant issues.

Tip #1: Kick off with open-ended queries

Kick off with open-ended queries like, “What challenges are you currently facing?”

As the dialogue evolves, integrate specific behavior or product questions. Prioritize open-ended questions to encourage unbiased and candid feedback.

Selecting Participants: Ensure your participant group mirrors user diversity. A blend of experiences guarantees comprehensive feedback. Also, voluntary participation typically ensures richer insights, reflecting the empathy over interview philosophy.

Tip #2: Deploy a survey campaign to gather volunteer interviewees

Deploy a survey campaign to gather volunteer interviewees. Use preliminary survey data to curate a varied interviewee pool.

Logistics and Scheduling: Face-to-face interviews yield the richest data, from verbal responses to body language. If in-person meetings are unfeasible, video calls are a solid alternative. And if both options are off the table, phone interviews suffice.

Tip #3: Embrace empathy to gauge the best time to conclude each interview

Embrace empathy to gauge the best time to conclude each interview. Aiming for a strictly regimented finish can hinder the free flow of information.

Finding an interview buddy: An efficient interview typically features two roles: The interviewer and the scribe. The interviewer, ideally someone not deeply intertwined with the product's development, navigates the questionnaire. This distance can often foster more genuine feedback. Meanwhile, the scribe diligently notes responses for subsequent analysis.

Tip #4: Rotate Interviewers to maintain a fresh perspective

Rotate Interviewers to maintain a fresh perspective. However, retain a consistent Scribe to ensure uniform note-taking.

Preparing for a customer-centric empathy interview

Starting an Interview: You want to hear the first thoughts that come to each interviewee’s mind without sugarcoating.  Creating a safe environment enables this type of candid conversation. Try starting with a statement like: “We are looking for your authentic response.  There are no wrong answers.”  As your interview progresses, listen to your interviewee with the two hallmarks of empathy: Curiosity and zero judgment.

Tip #5: Trust your questionnaire

If you develop good questions, the conversation after your opening statement will unfold naturally. Assess how well the questionnaire is working after the first few interviews and make adjustments as needed.

Necessary off-roading: Some feedback requires probing. For example, when an interviewee mentions something like a slow interface, Interviewers have a great opportunity to go off-roading with follow-up questions to determine the customer’s product performance expectations. Additionally, the scribe should follow up with questions.

Tip #6: Interviewers less familiar with the product

Interviewers less familiar with the product than Scribes benefit from periodic check-ins for guidance on follow-up questions.  Check-ins also give the Scribe a chance to finish note taking before moving to new questions.

Resist backseat driving: Remember the goal of listening to a customer’s emotions and desires related to their problems?  To accomplish this you have to let the interviewee drive the conversation. Your questionnaire functions as a guidebook to move towards your learning objectives, but the interviewee gets to provide answers that direct the conversation.

Resist the urge to tell interviewees where they took a wrong turn when they say incorrect things about your product. For example, customers often make complaints about product documentation in empathy interviews. While Interviewers may want to help interviewees navigate documentation in these moments, don't backseat drive. Instead, stay true to your goal to hear (not steer) the customer by asking questions like: “What were you expecting to see in the documentation?”

Tip #7: Scribes should use their vantage point

Scribes should use their vantage point to see when Interviewers are backseat driving and gently intervene to get things back on track.

Closing the Interview: At the end of each interview, you can give the interviewee an open road to share anything your questionnaire may have missed.  An open-ended question like “Is there anything you wish we would have asked you today?” can help elicit additional information.  Keep in mind that not everyone will have additional information to share, but those who do normally give great insight on issues or opportunities that you may have otherwise overlooked.

As the interview wraps up, thank participants for their time and candid feedback.  Then take it a step further and show appreciation by sharing what you will be doing with the data they provided.  Next steps may be apparent to you, but your customer does not know anything beyond what happens in the interview. By taking a moment to show them how the information they provide will be used, you leave them feeling engaged and appreciated.

Tip #8: If possible, give each interviewee a small gift

If possible, give each interviewee a small gift or personalized thank you note.  Even something as simple as entering participants into a small prize raffle shows appreciation and keeps them engaged with your product after the interview ends.

Using data for enhanced digital product design

Analyzing data: Interview data gets complicated quickly. Teams can easily become overwhelmed when analyzing data from multiple interviews. Luckily, Thematic Analysis can help structure data and provide deeper insights.

Thematic Analysis looks for patterns in data. Start by reviewing interview notes and grouping ideas into common themes. These themes should naturally tell a story of users interacting with your product.

Tip #9: Initial stages of thematic analysis work best

Initial stages of thematic analysis work best with physical interaction. As you review data try grouping ideas on sticky notes and continue moving the groupings around until clear themes emerge.

Thematic analysis process

Emerging themes will naturally lend themselves to basic product development recommendations. Start by assessing the theme impact as positive or negative and scoping that impact. Then turn this insight into targeted and actionable recommendations to guide development priorities.

Steps taken in the thematic analysis process

Tip #10: Developing JTBD recommendations

The Jobs to be Done (JTBD) format ensures recommendations are consistently understandable, targeted, and actionable.  The basic JTBD format drives targeted action in terms of what you hope to deliver, who will benefit from the delivery, and why they will benefit: “(customer), needs (delivery) so they can (benefit)”. JTBD’s simple format packs a lot of great information into one sentence.  For example:

Users in time zones behind the East Coast need a simple UI-driven password reset application so they can access company information quickly and easily.

The statement clearly identifies customers as users with business hours later than East Coast time and recommends the development of a password reset application.  Importantly, the application’s benefit goes beyond simply resetting passwords.  In this instance, a story emerged from thematic analysis where users working outside of East Coast business hours were unable to access company information and became frustrated at the complexity and time requirements of the existing password reset capabilities.  Building a simple UI-driven password reset application nullifies this negative experience.

Tip #11: JTBD may not be the right format for you

JTBD may not be the right format for you.  Explore persona building and other ways to present themes in a consistent manner then pick what works best for your product.

Presenting Recommendations: JTBD statements provide strong foundations for presenting recommendations to leadership and other stakeholders. Formal presentations justify recommendations and encourage prioritization. Presentations often include an overview of the interview’s purpose and results alongside the recommendations. The best presentations use JTBD statements to focus attention on actionable recommendations.  Including time for questions and group discussion during presentations ensures consensus can form around recommendations.

Tip #12: Practice empathy during group discussions

Practice empathy during group discussions by letting JTBD statements speak for themselves while you listen to the conversation and ask follow-up questions. Use your follow-up questions to focus the conversation on positive suggestions that iterate on your recommendations.


By rounding off discussions and integrating insights into developmental roadmaps, the cycle of empathy-based development continues. These roadmaps plan and monitor progress and familiarize users with developmental strides. Through periodic revisits via empathy interviews, product development remains in sync with users' evolving needs, ensuring a truly customer-centric digital product design approach. Capital One would like to thank Rob Brodell, Jyoti Bhardwaj, Danthanh Tran, Eugene Ghimire and Susan Price for their expert contributions to writing this article.  

Rob Brodell, Manager, Product Management, Capital One

I'm a product manager & freelance writer. My writing explores best practices, product mindset, and complex product challenges. RobertBrodell.com

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