7 Types of Questions to Build Empathy for Design Thinking

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
June 1, 2023
Three people gathered around a table and engaged in conversation
7 Types of Questions to Build Empathy for Design Thinking
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
June 1, 2023

Building a sense of empathy with your audience is at the core of design thinking — as well as the very first step in the design process. . How else could you solve their problems unless you understand other people’s experiences, feelings, motivations, and struggles?

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • What is empathy in design thinking?
  • Benefits of empathizing with people in design thinking
  • The 7 types of questions to ask in the empathy stage
  • A few templates to better empathize with your customers

Let’s get started!

What is the empathy stage of design thinking?

The ‘Empathize’ stage of design thinking lays the foundation for the following steps of design thinking by understanding all the human elements of the problem at hand. By empathizing with people, designers can embrace human-centered design methodology to create solutions that address their underlying problems, resulting in more meaningful and impactful outcomes.

Building empathy with the people or users experiencing the core problem can result in:

  • Better, user-centered solutions
  • Reduced biases and incorrect assumptions
  • Improved problem-solving
  • Better collaboration throughout the following steps of design thinking

The exact questions you need to ask during the Empathize stage can be wildly different based on the problem or empathy technique, but there is a common denominator — these questions should typically be open-ended and story-based to invite more observations and deeper insights.

7 types of questions to help build empathy for people 

1. Introductory questions

Empathic design goes beyond collecting facts like the age or location of the end user. So when you start your conversation, introductory questions that ask about specific instances can help you learn who your user really is and what they actually care about.

To put this in a real-world context, let’s take a look at Netflix. The company’s pivot to streaming is an excellent example of the design-thinking process, so let’s reimagine what those introductory questions might have been. 

  • What was it like the last time you tried renting a DVD?
  • Can you tell me what it’s like waiting a few days for the DVD to arrive in the mail?

A standard question like, “What was it like the last time you tried doing [the problem you’re addressing]?” can help you empathize with a user’s first-hand experience.

In a B2B space, you might ask additional questions like:

  • What does a day at work look like?
  • Can you tell me more about your role and responsibilities?
  • How familiar are you with [a problem]?

2. Follow-up questions

The key to understanding customers and their pain points lies in a good follow-up question. You need to elicit stories instead of running through a checklist.

An easy way to ask follow-up questions is to frame them as “Why” questions. While these can’t effectively be scripted beforehand, you can go beyond the typical “Why” questions. Here are three techniques you should consider:

  • Rephrasing the question: If you feel like the interviewee is holding back, ask the same question you did before in a different way. For instance, “What does a day at work look like?” can be reframed as “How do you usually prioritize tasks during a typical day at work?”
  • Link responses: Connect the dots between the answers. For instance, if a participant tells you about a current challenge they’re facing, ask questions like, “Is that like the time you had to do [solve a problem]?” 
  • Dig into implications: When people give you a safe answer to a question, ask about the implications of their answers. For example, if you hear, “I’m always putting out fires,” you can ask, “What are the consequences of that in your workplace?”
Related: A step-by-step guide to identifying the real problem

3. Probing questions

Ask participants to elaborate on an answer with an example. Or ask them to explain something in detail. These open-ended questions are designed to encourage deep thought and go beyond what users are saying. 

  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • What led you to that conclusion?
  • What were your original intentions?
  • Why did you choose that option first?
  • Can you give me an example of when this happened?

To become better at asking probing questions, practice active listening. It may be clear to a user why they behaved a certain way, but they may not be articulating it. If you don’t listen intently, you may miss out on some things that can help you get to the root of the issue.

Note: These in-depth questions can help solve one of the four most common challenges of design thinking.

4. Specifying questions

If you still sense you’re not getting closer to the truth, try asking questions that help you get specific details like, “How did it make you feel?” or “What did you do when [x] happened?”

But watch out for visual cues and body language. If a participant is non-verbally expressing their frustration when talking about a problem they had, asking how it made them feel will signal to them that you aren’t really paying attention.

You also don’t want to be too empathetic and ask, “Was that frustrating for you?” because that is a leading question that can introduce bias in the process. Instead, take note of their body language or demeanor and move on.

5. Direct questions

You can introduce topics directly that are either related to your project or based on something the interviewee said by asking direct questions. 

For instance, Instagram is likely trying to create a Twitter rival with its own text-based app. When conducting an empathy interview, it might ask participants something along the lines of: 

  • How familiar are you with Twitter’s features and its competitors?
  • Do you use Mastodon? How does it compare to Twitter?

It is vital to wait till the end to ask direct questions so participants have ample time to share their perspectives before you show your cards, and it prevents any undue influence. 

Related: Learn how IBM used Mural to scale a design culture globally

6. Indirect questions

If you don’t want to pose a question directly to customers, try an indirect approach. 

For example, if Instagram wanted to find out which Twitter features it should emulate, you could ask questions about other people’s experiences:

  • Do you think people like the new For You tab on Twitter?
  • How do you think users feel about Community Notes?

Since participants only share an interpretation of other users’ experiences, their inherent biases can creep in. So don’t treat subjective truths as facts. 

7. Interpreting questions

When you want to ensure you’ve understood a participant’s answer, you can ask interpreting questions.

For example, if a user has told you they’d never buy from a specific brand again, you might want to clarify if the decision was based on their shopping experience or the quality of the product or both. 

An example could be: “Am I right in understanding that the reason you’ll never shop again at [x] is because of the low quality?” or “Was it the poor customer service that put you off [x] brand?”

This line of questioning ensures you’re not misinterpreting what users are saying and connecting the wrong dots.

Need more question examples to ask your subjects? Check out these 25 brainstorming questions for generating better ideas.

The real purpose of empathy interviews 

The main goal of semi-structured empathy interviews or “chats” is to help designers identify user needs and behaviors — even those they’re unable to articulate or are unaware of. 

It’s also important not to take everything people say at face value. Recognize that there’s often a gap between what they say they do in a situation vs. what they actually do. You might have to shadow users as they go about their day and then ask questions to gain deeper context.

For instance, designers at Uber Eats follow partners on deliveries and sit in people’s homes as they order takeout to observe their design in use. This walk-a-mile immersion method helps them understand the real-world challenges that can’t be replicated in an office environment.

Get started with the walk-a-mile immersion template by LUMA Institute.
Note: because empathic design should serve real needs, designers will need to map out and challenge their assumptions

Treat empathy interview questions like a guide

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to an empathy interview. Although this semi-structured chat is popular among most design teams, some companies adopt a more structured approach or prefer observing customers in the wild instead. 

As long as you’re not trying to influence the outcome of the conversation — your questions remain neutral and non-binary — you’ll gain a deep understanding of your audience and design better products. 

Done with your user interviews? It’s time to place your observations in an empathy map. Use Mural’s empathy map template to share what you know about users with the rest of the team.

The Mural platform has the features, templates, and expertise teams and enterprises need to push innovative solutions forward without sacrificing creativity, bring out the best ideas from everybody, and fix how their teams collaborate.

Once you’ve empathized with your end-user or customer, you can move to the next stage of design thinking: Define.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.