Guidelines for Engaging with Participants

There are many different tools and exercises in this framework, but they all share the common component of facilitating your engagement with participants – whether they be users, developers, or representatives of intermediary organizations. The guidelines in this section are relevant to every framework element you see below.


Empathy can be defined as your ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. This ability is central to all Needfinding work. Empathy is not a switch you can turn on – it takes time to establish a relationship where a participant feels comfortable sharing thoughts and feelings with you, and for you to be able to draw the conclusions you seek from it. Below is a graph that demonstrates the research process and the role of empathy through engagement with a participant or group of participants:


This process can happen over the course of an entire interview or within the context of specific exercises during a group convening.


Encouraging participants to tell stories is an important part of a robust Needfinding approach. When an individual shares a story instead of simply answering a question you are often able to draw out a greater range of details around their experiences and ask even more insightful follow up questions. Similarly, when people are able to share what is important to them in the natural way they communicate this engenders trust. Trust is critical for you to be able to gain a deeper understanding of how your tool and/or service fits or doesn’t fit into their lives. Creating the types of interactions that make storytelling possible can often be done simply by asking for an example when a participant talks about something interesting or something you want to understand better. You can even prompt stories directly by asking a participant to tell you a story about a certain topic or occurrence. Other elements in the framework, such as visual exercises and group convenings also aid in helping people share their context and personal experiences which are at the heart of storytelling.

Storytelling is also encouraged by embracing good practices around interview questions, observation, and coordination with your team. Below are a few tips for doing great research. Adherence to these tips will support you in drawing out meaningful stories:

  1. Watch first, believe what you see, and ask questions later.
  2. Avoid binary questions.
  3. Ask “why?”
  4. Pay attention to nonverbal cues.
  5. Be patient: trust your question and wait.
  6. Learn their language, such as preferred terminology for different concepts, and use it.
  7. Ask questions neutrally, one at a time.
  8. Connect and coordinate with your teammates.
  9. Capture it all with notes and recordings, if appropriate.
  10. Be patient. People need time to put together their thoughts. Don’t feel a need to fill that space with meaningless chatter or rush on to the next question.


The most valuable tool you have in your research process is your own ability to observe. No matter how focused your research priorities are, observing a range of things around you will have an impact on what you learn. This includes everything from paying attention to how the world works for the users, to the things a user surrounds themselves with. AEIOU is a simple acronym to help you remember what to look for in the field. Here is what it means (see sidebar).

Remember that all of these elements can be meaningful despite your focus. For example, even if you are looking into something as specific as how people use a mobile app, there are still going to be valuable insights to gain from the environment, such as where they store or carry their mobile device in their office and users’ interactions with others, such as their co-workers.


One of the most important things you can do throughout your process is to immediately debrief with your team after each activity even if you only have 15 minutes. Debriefing while information is still fresh in your mind is essential. No matter how good your notes are and how tired you feel after an activity, you will lose details and insights as time passes. Here is a short list of items to consider when debriefing:

  1. Initial Impressions & Knowledge Nuggets: How did this activity go and what did you learn? What are the most valuable or interesting insights you drew from this activity?
  2. Participant Life & Priorities: What are the lives and priorities of the participants both in general as they relate to your research goals?
  3. Social Connections & Roles: Who do they interact with, how, and how does that impact your research priorities?
  4. What the Heck?!: Review surprising findings, unexpected context and anecdotes.
  5. What Else?: End your debrief by asking this open-ended question.

This framework details how to approach debriefing and analysis in general in the last section, Designing the Analysis Process.