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Qualitative Research for Customer Understanding and Empathy: In-Depth Interviews

Whenever design teams start ideating on new products, features, functions and services, they must keep the customer’s voice in mind: As a leader, you must inspire them to ask, “What do they need? Why do they need it? When do they expect it?”

For example, a retailer facing major challenges such as supply chain disruption may be considering pushing online orders rather than focusing on in-store sales. But to do that well, they need first to confirm that their customers want such a change and then determine what the interaction will look like for both customers and the company.

Qualitative research, such as in-depth interviews (IDIs), is one way to obtain a level of empathy to ensure the successful launch, adoption and use of such a new or enhanced experience. IDIs – an important form of primary research – generate extensive, deep customer research that reveals product users’ likes, dislikes and expectations.

In this post, the first of our customer understanding blog series, we will look closely at IDIs as a key form of qualitative customer research. Across any design team, IDIs are one of the first and most often recommended approaches to primary research that explores both existing problems or more generic needs of any audience.

Our goal is to walk through the process of conducting IDIs to create a common understanding about the amount of work that goes into this technique, so you can start planning sooner rather than later. All IDIs follow a process of:

  1. Creating the customer research objective
  2. Defining the questions to ask and creating the customer research guide
  3. Defining the audience and sourcing participants
  4. Conducting interviews
  5. Performing analysis and creating customer insights
  6. Hosting a read-out session and other meetings with stakeholders to discuss action plans
  7. Let’s look at each step in order.

1. Create the customer research objective.

The intent of IDIs is to extract pain and friction from certain specific problems customers may encounter with a product or service. More generally, you can also use them to understand users’ needs. In both scenarios, you must define the overall research objective first. It will set the stage for the rest of the execution of your IDI and will drive decisions about who to interview and how to craft the interview guide.

However, your qualitative research objective is not only for your IDI. You will also use it in your communications to potential participants to help you categorize your IDI’s findings, so others in your organization can leverage its insights for similar challenges. In a way, it’s a strategy for hardening all your primary research studies and grounding them into a common research agenda across the organization as a whole.

2. Define the questions to ask, and create the customer research guide.

Once you have drafted your customer research objective and aligned all parties benefitting from your research, it is time to craft your interview guide.

Primary, qualitative research requires open-ended responses. That way, participants have a voice and can tell their stories. You will get more out of IDIs if you can lead your participants to share deep levels of specificity. More details allow for more action.

Note that customer research guides do take time to create, and most often, you will do two things with them:

  1. Add some ad hoc questions while conducting the interview itself. While this is a normal course when having open-ended questions, be mindful of how much time you requested and how much information you want to gather from the participants.
  2. Revise the questions based on how the initial set of interviews goes. However, avoid completely overhauling the guide itself. If you see a need to do that, pause the study and regroup as a team to discuss.

Luckily, an array of digital tools is available to help with interview guides and facilitation, such as Miro, Mural, Luma Institute, Session Labs and more. These collaboration resources all include templates and lessons about performing IDIs from experts around the globe and from all sorts of industries.

3. Define the audience and source participants.

This is usually the trickiest step in the process. With qualitative research such as IDIs, you need to be as inclusive as possible when selecting participants. But since the study is qualitative research, you should keep the number of participants relatively small.

Depending upon how large your audience segment is, you may need multiple studies. Most researchers will use existing segmentation or personas to help create the counts (volume of people grouped by some dimension) and recruit participants.

Participants themselves can come in two forms:

  1. Existing customers who may or may not have explicitly said they are willing to participate in a research project. If they have not, and you must actively recruit them, they may expect some level of compensation for their time. This requires more of a financial investment and more time to create a recruiting and communication plan. Fortunately, in today’s digital age, this is far easier to do than before, thanks to self-service sign-up and calendar tools.
  2. Consumers and non-customers who may or may not have similar products, services or brands that they do business with. These audience pools are great for extracting information about other competitors and the market in general, in addition to a brand’s perception and its products and services.

4. Conduct interviews.

Now that you have sourced your participants, you can host the interviews. You should only need roughly 60-90 minutes for an IDI. If it lasts longer, you probably need to narrow down your research objective, or you haven’t designed the questions to extract the right level of information.

This does not mean you can’t return and ask the participants more questions once you conduct all the first-round interviews, but you should reserve that practice for themed insights pointing to new or unknown problems that either oppose or differ from the overall research objective.

During the interview, you should follow a standard flow to help set the stage and put the participant at ease:

  1. Make introductions
  2. Explain why you are conducting this study
  3. Share the expected outcome and duration of the interview
  4. Explain what to expect during the interview
  5. Go through the questions
  6. Leave time for any feedback or discuss anything the participant wants that you didn’t ask during the interview
  7. Confirm how you will use this information, and thank the participant for their time.

As stated previously, this interview guide is merely a guide. The interviewer should start with open-ended questions and then ask additional probing questions based on the participant’s responses. Being genuine, honest and open about what you hear from the participants will increase their openness.

5. Perform analysis and create customer insights.

Most researchers and designers alike will agree this is the most fun stage for a number of reasons:

  • They are learning new things all the time about their users
  • The shift in behavior based on technology advancements opens a lot of new opportunities
  • IDIs can reveal how wrong or misaligned an organization’s knowledge about customer needs is internally
  • The data, while empirical, is hard to refute, helping to avoid bias and remove political landmines
  • Decisioning becomes faster, so the organization can move forward

The hard part is that this step requires a fair amount of time to get all the notes from the interviews in order. Typically, you conduct interviews with two people: a facilitator and a scribe. Each must focus on their own role. For example, it is difficult for the facilitator to capture what interviewees say because they can lose focus and control of time without getting the depth of context they need.

The team will then need to gather all the raw information and concatenate what they heard and wrote down into categories or themes of information they can use to design solutions or inform strategic intent for a product or service. This theming of information is the starting point for how researchers and design teams make sense of what was said in aggregate. It’s normal to have information fit easily into categories. If responses don’t match a pattern, you can consider it fringe information and keep it – but not necessarily use it until a theme or pattern emerges.

Once the analysis is complete, you need to take two steps:

  1. Create a level of prioritization of the customer insights tied to the value chain of the organization. This helps you better understand the cause (if needed) and the initial impact of scope across the entity.
  2. Create an action plan or recommendation for each insight that illustrates what you must do to improve the situation or create the best possible experience for your customer.

This last step’s outcome varies by organization and team. Typically, you will have a presentation that houses all the insights, suggests how you might use these, and helps guide stakeholders to the next step. You can often categorize customer insights into four main buckets:

  1. Things we need to act on now
  2. Things we need to rethink
  3. Things we need to watch and monitor
  4. Things we do not need to act on.

6. Host a read-out session and other meetings to discuss an action plan.

The last step in the process before ideating or solutioning is to ensure alignment with key stakeholders who you will directly or indirectly affect with any recommendation. You should also align action plans and recommendations to the research objective and demonstrate how it accomplishes a goal, removes a barrier or friction point, improves the customer experience and so on. You should be very clear about solutions in your plans while outlining any risks or challenges with your team’s initial thinking.

One of the biggest things to understand at this point is that one large group meeting is not enough – you need a read out. However, we recommend one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders to ensure they understand the “how” and “why” at a deeper level than just an executive summary. Get intimate with these leaders, so they can promote and sponsor the next phase of work as well as the next research assignment.


Customer understanding includes a lot of what we all do every day, just with a different lens on how to define, act and ask questions with any external audience. Qualitative research like IDIs delivers a level of detail and customer understanding that helps you gain true empathy for your service or product users. But don’t overthink it! Focus on ensuring you can effectively leverage your research and design experts, and empower them to create a repeatable process your organization can benefit from in the future.


This post was originally published on the Centric Consulting blog.

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