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PROMISING PRACTICE: DESIGNING FOR EQUITY – THREE STEPS TO CONDUCTING EMPATHY INTERVIEWS

August 26, 2021 / Promising Practice

By Jim Kline

We know that it is easy for equity to go out the window when designers are busy and feel the urgency of deadlines. In our incubator, we intentionally coach our participants to slow down and listen. The radical act of practicing empathy and seeking to understand the true problem at hand makes us all better and helps push us closer to co-designing with, not just for, our most marginalized.

To help our program participants achieve this, our participants engage in what we call empathy interviews. An empathy interview is a short, structured interview between a designer and those who are directly affected by the problem being addressed. The goal of the interview is to be constantly listening and creating space for empathy and transformation. We know from experience that you can never conduct too many empathy interviews. After all, in order to truly understand a complex problem and design the right solution, you must go deep.

Let’s dig into the three steps to conduct an empathy interview.

  1. First, you have to decide who you are going to interview. Remember, you want to conduct a few interviews. As you are figuring out who to interview, think about who is most impacted by the problem, who will provide you with a different perspective based on their unique experience, and who you can learn from. Be sure to reflect on whether this person is the most marginalized by the problem. If not, try again and seek out to learn from people who likely experience the problem from a different perspective.
  2. Next, you will need to create the interview questions. We recommend keeping these short—not asking too much—but allowing for open space and stories. Click here for examples of interview questions.
  3. Last, but not least, when you are conducting these interviews, always keep in mind who you are as the designer and the power and privilege you hold. Be thoughtful about where you are conducting these interviews and what your body language and demeanor say to the person being interviewed. Will a 5th-grade student be as open and honest in an interview in the hallway between classes while they are rushing out of class? Likely not. Before, during, and after the interviews, think about flattening hierarchy as much as possible. Before the interview, take some time to reflect on your identity. Ask yourself:
    – What power and privilege will I bring to this conversation?
    – What biases do I know that I have? How will I mitigate those?
    – What about my own situation might create distance or closeness to the person I’ll be talking to?

Now that you conducted your interview, you should generate some insights. What did you hear? What are some key themes that you heard? Put them into a few simple sentences that distill the insights you garnered from this interview. We don’t want you to stop there. Our ultimate goal is to co-design with the community affected by the problem; therefore, we urge you as the designer to go back to the person you interviewed and show them the insights you developed from the interview. Ask for their feedback. Did it resonate with them? Did they think you were off track or miss anything? Always be sure to ask if they want to be a partner with you for the rest of your journey. 

Remember, as designers, we should be conducting empathy interviews consistently, with each time bringing in more and more people into the design process. Empathy interviews are just one of the many tools you should use to equitably design with others. I look forward to sharing more of those tools with you. 

Check out our Empathy Interview Guide with more tips and example questions!