Designing Questions to Empathize

Topics: Design Thinking

The first stage of Design Thinking is to empathize with your user and truly understand the problems they have and it typically entails going out and interviewing them. Thus, it becomes important to take the time and plan the questions your going to ask.

Questions should be genuine attempts to understand a situation; they’re a means by which people explore their curiosity, seek meaning, build trust, and develop honest relationships with one another. Questions should not be about focusing on a quick solution or be too narrowed so as to mitigate the risks of possibly annoying people; rather it should be about learning what really matters.

Good questions are the one that enable you to obtain volumes of information that you didn’t even think you needed. A good question in some ways challenges assumptions requiring people to go beyond the obvious and encourages divergent thinking empowering the interviewee; it also enables one to get to the root of the problem and better understand the context of the situation.

Types of Questions

Two typical types of questions are closed questions and open-ended questions.

Closed questions result in short answers, usually a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, that typically reaffirm the interviewer’s basis or they can provide factual information like what year were you born in. While there is a space for closed questions they should be limited, try to seek other ways to get factual information before asking the user.

Open-ended questions allow the interviewee to express themselves and explore their reflections; typically, you get a better sense of what is important for them and how they feel. However, big open-ended questions, like what do you want to do in life, can inhibit many people, especially if there is no existing connection with the interviewee. There are six types of open-ended questions:

  1. Explorative Questions: Have you thought of…?
  2. Probing Questions: Can you describe how…?
  3. Analytical Questions: What are the causes of…?
  4. Reflective Questions: What do you think causes…?
  5. Affective Questions: How do you feel about…?
  6. Clarifying Questions: So, you mean that...?


When asking questions, it is also important to be aware of the pacing. There should be sufficient time for the interviewee to express themselves freely without the feeling of being rushed. Likewise, there are certain cultural behaviors that should be taken into consideration; the acceptable time for silence before awkwardness develops.

Questioning Frameworks

  • The 5 Whys
  • Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?
  • Collaboration Questions
    • How do you feel about…?
    • How would you describe…?
    • How could we…?
    • What help do we need in order to…?
  • Reframing Questions
    • How would it be different if…?
    • Suppose that…?
    • What if we knew…?
    • What would change if…?
    • What other way could we…?

Check the Product Beats competence center for further documentation on the 5 Whys framework.

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About Shreyas Pandit

Insightful product manager with expertise in Agile methodology and a talent for balancing business acumen with technical expertise to interpret client needs, propose and develop fresh solutions, and deliver solid user experiences. Excels at identifying inefficiencies and developing process improvements that cut down processing time and operating costs. Thrives in an entrepreneurial environment and is respected for a calm demeanor and an ability to lead and motivate cross-functional teams.

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