How Researchers Practice Empathy to put the “Human” in Human-Centred Design

Chloe Blanchard

Senior Design Researcher

Connectors having a discussion

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. 

How do Connected’s researchers approach this responsibility?

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: 

  1. Objectivity and Perspective: “To be able to see the world as others see it”
  2. Lack of judgement: “To be nonjudgmental”
  3. Emotional Awareness: “To understand another person’s feelings”
  4. Communication: “To communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings”

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. 

Empathizing with the participant: How to conduct ethical research

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:

  1. Clarify ambiguity: Make sure your participants understand what will happen during a session. Allow them an opportunity to ask questions before or during any activity. Only proceed when you are confident that your participants are fully aware of what will be happening, how you are collecting data, and how you intend to use the data.
  2. Ask for ongoing, enthusiastic consent: Participants need to actively consent to take part in your research. Paperwork is only one step of consent. After signing, make sure your participants know that they can withdraw their consent at any time during the session. 
  3. Be honest: Honesty at every stage of the process is important. If a participant is asking about project or client information that is protected under NDAs, be honest with them about the limitations of what you can share. What researchers disclose and how paperwork is written, have a legal and ethical responsibility to honestly represent how participant data will be collected, stored, and used. 
  4. Take only what you need: As a researcher, I understand that it is easy to record everything and it’s tempting to note every participant detail that may add nuance to an anecdote. But there is a lot of personal information that is not our right to take, and may even be illegal for us to record, such as personally identifiable information (PII). A participant is not responsible for monitoring and withholding their personal information, it is the researchers responsibility to protect any data they may have inadvertently received. 

Empathizing with the end user: How to solve real human problems 

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:

  1. Be inclusive: Design research that is inclusive of all existing or potential users so that you can build inclusive products. As designer and inclusion advocate RC Woodmass said in a recent Lunch & Learn hosted at Connected, “no human being is an edge case.” We are building our future, and it is important to work to ensure it is a future where no one is left out. 
  2. Represent the truth: All human beings have inherent biases that affect our interpretation and communication of information. As researchers we need to be conscious of our biases and put them aside to find and represent the truth. Being non-judgemental takes practice but yields the most truthful insights.
  3. Protect users’ needs: The learnings that researchers uncover grant us a lot of power. It is our responsibility to try to make sure that what we learn about our users is heard, understood, and applied. This can be a difficult if your organization or client have other priorities, but as Chris Geison, Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab, declared at Strive, “it is time for us to be the source of constructive friction.”
  4. Consider the impact: We are all creators, building products that shape our present and future. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the work we do has a positive impact. At Connected, we do so via continuous discovery and our endeavor to solve real problems and create genuine value. To take it a step further, consider hosting an ethics workshop for your product to playtest how a product or service could be exploited or misused for negative purposes. 

Reflections 

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. 

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