Design Thinking: What is an Empathy Interview?

Empathy interviews are the cornerstone of Design Thinking. Through ethnographic research techniques like In-Depth Interviews (IDI) we can learn how different customers feel about the problem we are trying to solve and how they might fix it if they could.

During an empathy interview, there is a moderator (question-asker) and a note-taker. These interviews are usually conducted one by one for 30 minutes to an hour in-person, over the phone or video chat. In-person is best, as it allows us to see the customer’s reaction, body language, and hear their tone of voice, their excitement and their frustration. By asking lots of open-ended questions and doing far more listening than talking, we learn valuable insights from real customers to take back to the team for a truly informed brainstorm session.

How many people do I need to interview?

You will need at least 5 customers for patterns to emerge, but there’s a bit more to it than just finding five folks to chat with. Here are a handful of pro tips when recruiting:

  1. As a default, we highly recommend scheduling 7 customers, so that, should anyone cancel or not show up, you at least have 5 data points to work with.
  2. A typical interview block schedule happens over the course of 1 day. We typically book our interviews with the following schedule:
    - 9am
    - 10am
    - 11am
    - Lunch at 12pm
    - 1pm
    - 2pm
    - 3pm
    - 4pm
    - Debrief for 15–20 mins
  3. If there are multiple customer groups that you need to meet with (i.e. customers who currently use an app, customers who do not use apps) book 7 customers per type per day. For example…
    - Tuesday: All App Users
    - Wednesday: All Non-app Users

Who do I recruit?

Consider the data you already have available on your customer types. Take these traits into account along with the following considerations:

  1. Customer Group Types: Segment-specific or General Population? For example: Sci-fi movie fans of Netflix vs Netflix viewers.
  2. Internal Customer Group Types: This could be the people who impact the development of your product or service. IT, leadership, service representatives, sales teams, etc.
  3. Geography: Is it important that these customers are from all over the US/world or can they be from the same area?
  4. Demographics: Get an even mix of gender and often age ranges.
  5. Age Range: Is there a specific age group you wish to speak with?
  6. Experience: What services, products, or other events do these customers need to have experience with?
  7. Exclusions: What experience or traits do you wish to exclude?

Early Persona Discovery

At this early stage, the difference between who your customer is and is not may be as simple as Sci-fi lover vs Action-movie lover. Even this is an early sign of your customer persona!

What is a persona? A persona is like a baseball card for your target customer. The front of the card shows a picture of who this typical customer might look like, and on the back is their “stats.” Stats in this case means the needs, wants, desires, frustrations, and even defining traits like their lifestyle.

What if I don’t know who our target customer is?

Even if you don’t who these customers might be, I bet you and the team could make an educated guess. Many times the customer traits are foggy and thus we do a short Assumptions workshop. Here’s how to run one with your team:

  1. Gather up your team members and any stakeholders that have knowledge of the problem you’re trying to solve. Schedule a 1 hour meeting.
  2. Choose a whiteboard writer/facilitator.
  3. 15 mins: What we know. As a group, shout out all the things you know to be true about the customers affected by the problem you’re trying to solve.
  4. 15 mins: What we want to know. As a group, shout out all the questions and other things you want to learn from these customers and the problem at hand.
  5. 15 mins: What we assume. As a group, shout out all the things you assume could be true about these customers and the problem at hand.
  6. Final 15 mins: Take this list and tease out the definition of your target customer. Who are they? Who are they NOT? The extra bonus here is that this list doubles as your first draft of moderator guide questions! (More on that in the next post.)

How do I recruit customers?

It varies depending on your budget, timeline, and team resources. The basics of recruiting are:

  1. Find a group of people
  2. Ask them some questions to see if they qualify as the target group you’re looking for (i.e. create a screener)
  3. Schedule each customer and provide dates, times, location, directions, and who to call should they have trouble finding the location or need to cancel.
  4. Incentivize each customer. This can be through a gift card, check, or some other value to the customer. In my experience incentives run $50 per 30 minutes. If you’re booking people for an hour at a time, give them $100 in return.
  5. Mail out or deliver incentives to those who have participated.
  6. Parking: Don’t forget to add a little extra cash to cover the cost of parking if applicable! (Boston lots can be upwards of $25 and beyond!)

The above can be daunting to take on all by yourself. Don’t worry! We’ve got some options for you:

  • External Recruitment Vendors: Companies like ORC International offer recruitment services. These services include things like screening customers for applicability, scheduling, and sending out incentives.
  • Internal Employees: Pulling together a group of internal employees who fit your target customer is a great way to get started. (Sometimes your incentives can just be getting together for coffee.) Free to do, just time to schedule. Value in Speed But Beware of Bias: Not all projects will benefit from this group due to the “curse of knowledge.” Recruits in this group may have an intimate experience with your industry, systems, and processes, which will impact how they respond. Beware of bias.
  • DIY: On-The-Street Scrappy: If you’re short on time and money and just need to ask a handful of questions, getting out of the building and talking to people live on the street or in a coffee shop can be a really fast way to gain insights. It’s scrappy, takes a bit more patience, and may mean your conversations are shorter (people on the street are also often short on time!). Little or No Cost: Free to do, but it is an investment in time. You may also want to consider offering an incentive like a $10 gift card to the coffee shop or store nearby. Shhh! Don’t spill the beans! Talking with people on the street is best for asking questions about things not so sensitive to legal or competitive intelligence. We do not recommend going out on the street to ask about top secret projects!


  1. Recruit at least 5–7 people per target customer group
  2. Consider our 7 Customer Trait Types when pondering who to recruit
  3. Use what you know, want to know, and what you assume to reveal who your target customer(s) may be
  4. Recruit those customers! Consider your time, budget, and shared knowledge.

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I write. I design. I mentor.

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