The Empathy Pathfinder

A tool to help those new to design thinking prepare for a need-finding engagement.

The front page of ‘The Empathy Pathfinder’ — a tool to help students prepare for need-finding engagements and build team cohesion.

Interviewing. Some people love it while others would rather avoid it at all costs. It can be particularly intimidating for individuals who spend much of the day in an area of expertise that requires more work in isolation than not.

I’ve seen quite a few students struggle with the interview portion of their design thinking classes during my time at the d.school. They are unsure of who to interview, how to collaborate with their (often brand-new) teammates prior to the interview and after-the-fact. The anxiety that can sometimes arise prior to interviewing can lead some students to shut down.

‘Don’t talk to strangers’

Many people are not accustomed to seeking out and approaching strangers and asking for some of their time. The act runs contrary to what many of us are told throughout our youth. “Don’t talk to strangers” is a lesson taught in many families early and often.

Even after years working in and around media, the act still intimidates me sometimes. I feel deeply for those students who are eager to learn design thinking and apply it, but have trouble overcoming this hurdle.

Some students attempt to avoid the discomfort and the logistical challenge of scheduling interviews by interviewing their friends. That’s not necessarily bad if your friends fit your desired user profile. But it can sometimes deny students an opportunity to stretch beyond their comfort zone and into an area of deeper learning.

I wanted to create a tool for those students who struggled — whether it was their first time interviewing or their 100th. “The Empathy Pathfinder” was the result. It was created for and deployed during “Dating, Diet & Sleep: Design at the Disconnect” and was also used in the course “From Maps to Meaning”.

(You can download “The Empathy Pathfinder” here)

My goal was to create a tool that could serve as a release valve for nervous energy and a common language for team members to share their concerns and aspirations prior to engaging with strangers. I ended up creating a double-sided worksheet that students could fill out and keep.

When do I need to use this?

I recommend using the ‘Pathfinder’ prior to sending students out to do need-finding interviews. It can also be used by professional teams that are new to design thinking, and want a baseline-setter prior to conducting need-finding work. It is a pre-work tool much like an interview guide. Give students flexible time to fill out the Pathfinder (or have them do it as prep-work at home) and then share it with their team (either in class or as a pre-class, team meeting assignment).

To use The Empathy Pathfinder, it is best to print it out double-sided on Tabloid-sized (11x17 in.) paper. Legal-sized paper (8.5x14 in.) can be used in a pinch.

If you use the Pathfinder, please share your story on Twitter using the hashtag #EmpathyPathfinder. In the meantime, happy interviewing.


“The Empathy Pathfinder” was created as part of the Stanford d.school Media Experiments Project, a collaboration between the d.school and Knight Foundation in 2015–2016. You can download ‘The Empathy Pathfinder’ here.