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What’s in a question?

Lots apparently — but more on that later.  Our team has had the privilege of having Assistant Professor Niels Billou from the Richard Ivey School of Business onsite to coach us in Design Thinking as we apply it within an initiative to foster innovation within our local ecosystem. 

A very important component to Design Thinking is end user empathy — truly understanding what your end user thinks, feels, says, and does.  As we learned from Niels, direct observation of your end user is crucial to producing empathy considering that the vast majority of communication is done through non-verbal cues (remember the Smokey Robinson song Tears Of a Clown?).  In-the-field research (i.e. going to where your end user is and observing them) is also another critical component to discovering empathy that cannot be ignored. 

Our observation will take the form of end user interviews with various stakeholders at their places of work within our local innovation ecosystem.  But getting someone to open-up through an interview is a true skill and can be a lot more challenging than you think – which is where I come back to from the start of this blog entry, the art of asking questions.  So while I won’t share my interview guide as I wouldn’t want to give away my questions to my unsuspecting interviewees, I will share with you some insights I learned from Niels regarding asking questions for empathy:

  • The underlying assumption to any interview is that you do not know your end user’s pain points.  You are merely there to observe and engage in an effort to discover those points.  Empathy asks us to come to the interview without bias.
  • However there are some questions that you already do know the answers to (for e.g. what’s your company’s mission? – something you can easily gather from a corporate website).  Don’t ask these types of questions as you will destroy any rapport you built-up with your interviewee. 
  • Always ask yourself, “What do I want to learn from this question?” & “Is there a more effective way to truly understand a position?”.  For example, take the direct question “What are your KPIs?”.  Why would you want to ask someone this question? Perhaps because you want to understand their true motivators?  Instead of being direct and getting a perhaps defensive answer (as one may feel they are being evaluated), a more effective way could be to observe the user in their daily routine and ask what gets in their way of accomplishing important goals?
  • Using charged words such as success or failure will produce certain responses in your interviewee. For example, asking someone if an endeavor was successful will most likely garner a guarded or defensive answer as generally no one likes to associate themselves with unsuccessful endeavors. 
  • Technology solves needs.  The goal of the interview is to discover the end user’s needs.  As Niels put it, you must switch off the solution engine.  I need to repeat this one over and over because I just KNOW that everyone needs SAP software somehow.  And while this may be true, I won’t even get to solve a real need if I don’t understand it first. 

So hopefully this gives a small snippet into the wonderful world of questioning for end user empathy and while I have taken some stats classes, I am certainly not a master interviewer. So on that note I would invite you to check out the bootcamp bootleg that outlines the Design Thinking practice including interviewing for empathy for further information.  And remember, Design Thinking is all about doing – so get out there and start talking to your end users.  I will be.  

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