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Empathy interviews

To learn the purpose, protocols, and logistics of empathy interviews
Teams who are considering using empathy interviews
Suggested Use
Review the materials as you make your plan
Time Needed
1-3 hours
We have learned the power of empathy interviews and they have become a routine across our system.

An empathy interview uses a semi-structured protocol to elicit stories, uncover unacknowledged needs, and center those needs in our improvement efforts. Empathy interviews help ensure that the diverse lived experiences of people are centered in our work. 

Why empathy interviews?


Empathy interviews are one-on-one conversations that use open-ended questions to elicit stories about specific experiences that uncover unacknowledged needs of those in our community. In student-powered improvement, empathy interviews with students can help teams with any aspect of continuous improvement. For example, empathy interviews can: 

  • Identify or prioritize a problem you want to solve 
  • Understand or prioritize the root causes of a problem 
  • Uncover specific needs that will inform system redesign

Consider these examples: 

In the empathy interviews case study, team members conducted monthly empathy interviews with students who were likely to be admitted into college but less likely to enroll. By listening deeply, team members gained an understanding of how‌ ‌students‌ ‌of‌ ‌color‌ ‌were experiencing their school‌’s ‌college‌ ‌and‌ ‌career‌ ‌systems. With this new knowledge, they could then design toward students’ real needs.

In the student network case study, students themselves learned how to conduct and analyze empathy interviews with their peers about transitions into ninth grade and their experiences in school that year. Students analyzed data from these interviews and designed change ideas based on what they learned. 

With a specific purpose in mind, it is imperative that teams consider whose stories most need to be heard through empathy interviews. Most often, teams should prioritize listening to students who have been historically marginalized by school systems. Without hearing their stories and perspectives, we risk maintaining the status quo. 


  • What’s our purpose? Why do we want to conduct empathy interviews with students? 
  • Whose stories do we need to hear? How might we prioritize interviews with students who are historically and currently marginalized by education systems?

Protocols + Conditions


Empathy interviews differ from traditional interviews. These questions ask people to share specific stories. A typical empathy interview protocol has four to eight open-ended, story-based questions. The most common question stems are:

  • Tell me about a time when ____.
  • Tell me about the last time you ____.
  • What are your best/worst experiences with ____?
  • Can you share a story that would help me understand more about ____?

As an interviewer, your goal is to follow the participants’ stories—not try to direct them with leading questions. In essence, you create the conditions to really hear the stories of people navigating your system. Therefore, after an initial answer to a question, the interviewer should use open-ended probes like these: 

  • Tell me more.
  • Why?
  • How did you feel? 

At the heart of an empathy interview is empathy itself. To practice empathy requires attention to the conditions in which the protocol is put in place. Interviewers should reflect on questions such as, “How does my identity affect how and what people share with me?” and, “How do I maintain awareness of my biases and challenge them?” 

Strategies to create comfort during an empathy interview include: 

  • Find a safe and confidential place to meet  
  • Start with a positive, personal connection
  • Use body language that signifies deep listening and care 
  • Describe the purpose of the interview and what will happen with the data
  • Never force someone to tell a story
  • Recognize when the experience is triggering trauma and be prepared to respond

Using these strategies usually requires understanding and practice opportunities for the interview team. If you do not have experience with empathy interviews in your system, consider help from an outside organization like Community Design Partners.


  • What questions could we ask in our interview? How will we decide on a final set of questions? 
  • What training and preparation will we provide the interview team? What capacities do we have and what do we need to be able to do this?



There are many details to consider for empathy interviews. 

Interview Team. Assemble a team of interviewers that is both broad and diverse. As you build the team, consider:

  • Relationships. When possible, consider an interviewer who already has a trusting relationship with families. 
  • Power dynamics. Consider how race, position, age, or gender might play out in an empathy interview setting. Deliberately work to reduce harm.
  • Language needs. Include multilingual interviewers or translators on your team.
  • Community. Consider including students, families, and community members as interviewers.

Note-Taking. It may feel like note-taking is rude or impacts the rapport, but actually, it is an important safeguard against bias and inference. Share that with the person you interview. Then capture as much as possible in your notes, including direct quotes. 

Data Collection. Make sure interviewers can store their notes in a secure data portal, and that names and identifying information are not recorded in the data set. It is easy to build a simple data collection form with a tool such as Google Forms. Include the interviewer’s name, but make sure you do not have anyone write the interviewee’s name, phone number, or address. 

Analysis. Set aside adequate time to make sense of empathy interview data. 

Who: Invite as many diverse perspectives as possible; multiple perspectives are one way to guard against bias. Consider whether the interviewed family members can also join the analysis. 

When: Analyze data any time after the data set is complete. The amount of time you need depends on the number of interviewers and the number of people on the analysis team.

How: A common approach to analyzing data is called “headlining.” Team members form pairs or small groups to read and summarize headlines from each interview using descriptive sentences or direct quotes. Once finished, group all of the headlines by theme. Make sure to remain descriptive and avoid judgment, inference, or solutions. For more support on empathy interview analysis, contact Community Design Partners. 

Circle Back. It’s important to return to your interviewees with any summary or follow-up. This is a way to show students that their stories and experiences matter. 


How will we attend to the logistics of empathy interviews?


Explore a few tools and examples for your empathy interview practice.

Explore examples of empathy interview questions.

Check out this planning guide for your team.