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Three ways into delicate interviews

by Rachel Bruins

4 min read

In our world of experience design, conducting research interviews is a key initial activity we use to extract nuanced insights around our customer expectations, pain points and preferences.

Actively listening to customer experiences first-hand establishes a foundational present-day viewpoint, whilst humanising what a typical boardroom might view of their stock “target audience” – helping breathe humanity into what can feel like a cold, distant label.

Naturally, it’s our job as researchers to collect these insights; however, approaching these interviews demands a delicate balance between inquiry, and empathy. I was recently reminded of the significance of mindful and empathetic interviewing following a recent round of delicate customer interviews: we needed to broach and rehash particularly emotionally charged experiences to unearth pain points, gaps and ultimately design for opportunity spaces. 

Following these interviews, I jotted down some considerations to take forward. Although seemingly simple, to note, there’s really no one-size-fits-all here; every interview will be different from the last, especially when revisiting emotionally charged states. Acquainting yourself with a combination of techniques can help set you up to stretch in different ways, should you need.


Three ways to prepare yourself:


1. Establish an atmosphere of openness and safety

When discussing the intricacies of personal experiences, it’s vital to create an atmosphere of openness and safety, where interviewees feel comfortable sharing their experiences, challenges, and aspirations. Think of how you can convey this environment both pre and post-session. Taking actions like clearly setting expectations upfront, having inviting and warm energy, encouraging and acknowledging boundaries along the way, considering whether recording will limit receptiveness, etc… will all help in crafting an inviting environment where participants feel at ease and candid in their responses.

2. Emotional Intelligence awareness

It’s much easier than it sounds. Having the emotional intelligence to know when to dive deeper into specific pain points, whilst remaining sensitive to emotional responses is an important balance – especially when dredging up past turbulent experiences that could trigger an emotional response. Be sure to exercise tact and considerate probing, but know when to pull back if the participant is showing signs of distress.

3. Crafting thoughtful questions

Building a thoughtful discussion guide that encourages reflection and space, without triggering discomfort is key. Prepare thoughtful questions, but also feel comfortable exploring spaces outside the guardrails if there’s merit. Active listening and genuine interest in their narratives will foster trust and collaboration. Embrace silence as an opportunity for interviewees to gather their thoughts and share more profound insights; don’t feel the need to fill every silence.


All in all, navigating sensitive interviews requires a unique blend and balance of strategic questioning and EQ. By fostering an environment of respect, empathy and impartiality, strategists can gather authentic insights that will fuel genuine design improvements that truly live up to customer needs.

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Rachel Bruins

→ Rachel’s expertise lies in driving customer-focused initiatives, with a strategic data-driven business mindset. With over 11 years in advertising and consulting roles, Rachel has acquired a unique skillet working across a diversified portfolio of clients and programs spanning across OOH, Experiential, Digital, Web, Personalisation, CX and UX. She’s had the opportunity to work on transformative brand programs such as the Honda portfolio, Samsung, Parmalat, Ripley’s, Amex, Smirnoff and more.

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