At Connected, we believe that continuous discovery is the foundation for building better products. In the “Connecting With Research” series, our design research team reflects on what is important when conducting research, and how we learn from the people who our products are built for. Investigating and establishing industry best practices, each post dives deep into a different topic related to building a human-centred research practice. This post explores the importance of actively practicing empathy in research and how an empathetic approach can help you to become a more ethical researcher.
“We don’t work for you. We work for the people.”
This bold statement from Vivianne Castillo, Senior Design Researcher at Salesforce, was the most impactful sentiment I heard this year at Strive, the annual UX Research Conference in Toronto. Castillo used her background in psychology and counselling to illustrate the importance of practicing empathy and ethical responsibility in all human-service professions. “We work for the people” means that researchers are first and foremost accountable to the people their work impacts.
This is critical because as people we build connections through authenticity and vulnerability. The most effective researcher–participant relationships are built on trust, comfort, and honesty, with the onus being on the researcher to use empathy to ensure these elements exist. Castillo argues that the emotional intelligence required to be a good researcher also makes us responsible for championing others within an organization. Whether we’re representing a research participant or the end-user of a product, it is our responsibility to represent their needs within our practice, projects, and products.
At Connected, empathy is the foundation of our human-centric research practice. We believe that in order to apply empathy to create impact requires a two-fold approach: creating an empathetic culture and actively practicing empathy within our work.
But what exactly is empathy? The word empathy, as used within design philosophy, is constantly changing, but nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman is popularly cited for defining the four attributes of empathy:
Taking these elements into account, one could define empathy for researchers as taking another’s point of view without judgement, striving to understand the feelings that motivate someone else’s actions, and to translate their perspective as truthfully as possible.
Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut writes that empathy is “the oxygen breathing life into the relationship between individual and other.” Connected’s research practice strives to actively practice the four attributes of empathy and use empathy to make ethical decisions for the people our work impacts, starting with our research participants and our products’ users.
When conducting research with participants, it is essential to prioritize their comfort, safety, and privacy, as well as respect their boundaries. Remember that a participant is not a vessel holding data that are you trying to access, they are a human being. Research activities can feel unnatural, confusing, or even overwhelming for participants. The best results come from a research environment that is built on mutual comfort and collaboration.
The following measures help to ensure that you are being empathetic to your participants’ needs:
We research with participants in order to form hypotheses on how real users will interact with our products. It is impossible to meet the needs of every individual user, but it is the researchers responsibility to understand segments of real or potential users, and to represent their needs within the product lifecycle. Our job is to ensure that research activities are designed to collect the right data, and to make sure that our learnings are understood and applied with truth and accuracy, so that product managers, designers, and engineers are empowered to make the best product decisions.
The following are some guidelines to ensure you are set up to solve real human problems based on an empathetic understanding of your users:
Empathy is the defining element of all the work I do and this year’s UX Research conference has stuck with me and inspired my approach further. This article is my way of bringing attention to the responsibilities that researchers like myself have. My background in design and UX strategy has made me conscious that the work I do has an impact, and I have always done my best to empathize with my users. As my career has shifted into research, I have a newfound appreciation for the increased accountability that comes with being so close to people’s needs, and the responsibility to advocate for others within the product development process. It is a responsibility that I believe is increasingly important in our interconnected world, a responsibility I and the rest of the Connected team take seriously.