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What are empathy interviews?

Updated: Feb 14

By Aly Nestler, WREN Lead Continuous Improvement Coach

Illustration of one person interviewing another person

When I describe human-centered continuous improvement I say, “We lead with empathy and we center equity,” meaning to understand a system as it currently operates, I advise teams to first collect empathy data.

Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in another's position, to observe what they observe, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. Increasing empathy builds important insights into your community’s world, uncovers hidden needs and motivations, and guides improvement efforts.

The reason we gather empathy data is to build systems that are more human centered, which means paying attention to narratives of struggle and success, and finding those who think about and experience systems differently. Tim Brown in Change by Design describes it this way:

“By concentrating solely on the bulge at the center of the bell curve...we are more likely to confirm what we already know than learn something new and surprising. For insights at that level, we need to head to the edges, to the places where we expect to find ‘extreme’ users who live differently, think differently, and consume differently.”

Empathy interviews are one way of seeking out those insights, as the stories people tell, and the things they say they do, are strong indicators of their deeply held beliefs about the world. Listening is a powerful way to understand and honor their truths.

While it is always good practice to understand your user, empathy interviews can be particularly helpful to:

  • Identify or narrow down a systemic problem

  • Uncover hidden needs that aren’t being met by the current system

  • Understand a problem and its root causes more deeply

  • Understand differences among humans

  • Get feedback on an idea or prototype

To learn more, read OEA Empowerment Academy's Being Human Centered.


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