Using Empathy Interviews to Develop Customer-Centric Products

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

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.  Fast forward 35 years and most of us take as gospel the importance of user input in digital product design and development. Today, we’re focused on maximizing user-centric design approaches in building our products.

Empathy interviewing is one way we maximize user-centric design by providing the product team with deep insight on users and their experiences.  This does not 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 case, empathy interviews empower the development team to learn how customers feel about the problems they face and potential solutions that could be developed prior to investing heavily in building a specific solution.

Empathy as a Mindset

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 “Pro Tips” to boost your chances of success.

Getting Ready

Preparing a Questionnaire: The empathy interviewing process starts by defining what you want to learn.  Are you seeking to learn about generalized customer behavior or specific interactions with your product?  Either way, a comprehensive list of questions will help you engage with customers. Begin by asking each interviewee about their daily life to increase their comfort level and help you identify relevant pain points.  

Pro Tip: Start open-ended with questions like: “What are you currently working on?”

Prepare specific behavior and/or product questions to ask as the conversation progresses.  Most importantly, ensure these questions are open-ended so your interviewees share unbiased and honest opinions.  For example: “How did you find our documentation?” sets interviewees up to discuss a specific experience with your documentation much better than, “Did you look on our website for documentation?”

Identifying Participants: Your participant population should reflect user diversity.  Interviewing several customers with varied product interactions provides holistic feedback.  Additionally, forced participation undermines the intent of user interviews. Remember the "empathy" over "interview” mentality.  Interviewees who want to participate provide the highest volume of data.

Pro Tip: Collect interview volunteers through a survey campaign. Gather baseline information in the survey to help you pick a diverse group of users to interview.

Navigating Logistics and Scheduling Interviews: Interviews that take place in-person allow you to gather the most data on your customers by visualizing their body language and having additional conversations before and after the interview.  If you cannot interview in person, consider using video to capture body language. A video format that shows the interviewee your own body language can increase their comfort level and willingness to share.  If in-person or video interviews are not options, then phone interviews will suffice.

Interviews may take longer than you think and interviewees tend to get uncomfortable and stop sharing if it looks like you will overshoot the scheduled end time.  Overscheduling the interview by a few minutes allows the conversation to wrap up naturally.

Pro Tip: Use your empathy to determine when to end each interview. Holding interviewees to the end of an interview if they don't have anything else to share creates a bad experience for them.  They may then share that bad experience with others, creating a negative word of mouth for your product.

Find a Buddy: When conducting interviews, there are two roles: the Interviewer and the Scribe.  

The Interviewer walks participants through the questionnaire. Keep in mind that Interviewers not directly connected to a product’s development team often inspire the most candid feedback.  This may seem counterintuitive, but Interviewers who do not work on the product come with less bias to distract them from the interviewee’s responses. This dynamic increases empathy and can feel safer for the interviewee.

The Scribe captures the interviewee's response during the interview for analysis later.  Scribes are often product owners or team members responsible for analyzing interview data.

Pro Tip: Vary your Interviewers across a series of interviews to ensure nobody becomes so focused on your proposed solution that they stop empathizing with interviewees.  Keep the same Scribe for every interview so notes are organized consistently.


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.

Pro Tip: 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.

Pro Tip:  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?”

Pro Tip: 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.

Pro Tip: 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.

Dealing with the Data

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.

Pro Tip: 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

Thematic Analysis Process  - data familiarization, codify data, identify themes, produce reports

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

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.

Pro Tip: 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.

Pro Tip:  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.

Coming Full Circle

As discussions wind down, transition into planning the development of your recommendations in roadmaps.  Roadmaps primarily plan and track ongoing work.  They also serve as a tool to help socialize development efforts with users.  As you share your roadmap with users, you can begin a new round of interviews to inform additional product maturation.  In this way, you come full circle and continue to develop with empathy.

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.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: © 2020 Capital One. Opinions are those of the individual author. Unless noted otherwise in this post, Capital One is not affiliated with, nor endorsed by, any of the companies mentioned. All trademarks and other intellectual property used or displayed are property of their respective owners.

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