Psychological Safety in Research

Hilary Hayes

Senior Design Researcher

I live every day with generalized anxiety and clinical depression. This makes establishing and reinforcing psychological safety critical for me to succeed in my role as a design researcher. 

By its very nature, a researcher’s relationship to their participant is intimate in a way that few other professional relationships are. While it is crucial for us cultivate psychologically safe spaces for participants to answer honestly, it is imperative that researchers take care to maintain our own psychological safety.

What Does a Design Researcher Do?

Design researchers (DRs) can come from almost any professional or educational background—I happen to have studied industrial design and then practiced UX design for the better part of 10 years. The unifying factor across all design researchers is that we strive for greater and deeper understanding of the problems that we’re facing. The bulk of our work may be done before solutions are considered, since a solid foundation of research is integral to ensuring that businesses and organizations aren’t wasting time and money pursuing the wrong outcomes. 

To gather knowledge, DRs carefully investigate human experience and behavior, through methods such as interviews, in-home or on-site visits, diary studies, or usability tests. We then synthesize key learnings to produce actionable next steps.

DRs and user experience researchers (UXRs) are often thought of as facilitators, guides, and even therapists to the test participants, because we foster open and intimate conversations about topics and actions. We provide our interview subjects with prompts to respond to: interrogating ideas, actions, hopes, frustrations, and even fears in great detail. After research tactics are complete, we gather and synthesize our findings to provide recommendations and actionable next steps for designers, engineers, clients, and other stakeholders.

DRs have a set of unique responsibilities and advantages when it comes to our work: We triangulate different types of data to benefit businesses, we stand up for those who aren’t in the room, and we work hard to limit our biases. This can be exhausting.

Risks of Design Research

User research isn’t something you can do from a distance. To drive a level of insight that meets people’s deep-seated needs, you have to get up close and personal with your users—but getting up close can also expose you to risks.

The emotional labor put in by researchers can be compounded by unpredictable circumstances that may arise during the discovery process. During user interviews, stories may come up that we’re not emotionally prepared to handle. Anything can come up in conversation. When researchers are successful in creating spaces where people feel safe to take a deep dive into their experiences and thought processes, they may choose to divulge intimate, rationally unrelated, and even troubling stories.

You may be asking someone about dog food but that could lead to discussing the painful loss of a family pet—or even a family member. Being on the receiving end of a sudden and raw emotional revelation can leave us feeling surprised, blindsided, and in worst cases can trigger our own issues.

Compassion Fatigue

Even if no major triggering issues come up, researchers can still experience Compassion Fatigue. Also known as vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress, Compassion Fatigue was originally coined in the 1980s to describe the impact of continuous exposure to suffering or loss of life in care professions like physicians, psychologists, nurses, and emergency workers, but has since been found in other areas of work. 

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue include feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, and irritable, as well as physical symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and exhaustion. Most notably, Compassion Fatigue can lead to reduced empathy and feeling either inappropriately hypersensitive or insensitive to further exposure to stories that may have depleted our compassion in the first place.

DRs may do work with people in medical spaces, palliative care, funeral services, or any number of other sensitive arenas, meaning creating space for both their subjects’ and their own psychological safety is crucial.

“We have been seen as part of the product and tech industry, but we are actually—and should see ourselves as—part of the human services industry.”
– Vivianne Castillo

Recognizing early warning signs of Compassion Fatigue and seeking early interventions are important as it can negatively impact personal, social, and job functions, increasing the risk of burnout and laying the groundwork for, or exacerbating, mental health conditions. DRs must be especially vigilant for signs of Compassion Fatigue when going in field and/or traveling to conduct research, since travel can feel isolating, and physical risks may be compounded by unfamiliar settings—such as when meeting strangers in their homes.

Building Resiliency at Work

Mental illness aside, psychological wellbeing is largely about resilience—the ability to cope with and bounce back from stressful situations and experiences. Stress can build up unless we find constructive ways to manage it. If your everyday stresses are high, such as if you’re dealing with debt or housing instability, your resilience decreases, and you are likely to be less equipped to deal with unpredictable stressors.

When you find methods to manage this stress, your resilience increases. Taking measures to ensure you maintain a high level of resilience means you’re better prepared to deal with stressful events when they occur. Here are some ways to build your own resiliency at work:

1) Safe Spaces at Work and as a Team

Team dynamics and culture can have a significant impact on team members’ psychological safety. Establishing strong communication and trust within the research team, including non-researchers such as product managers or engineers who may be assisting in research or traveling with you, lowers social barriers and empowers the team to speak more frankly and openly to each other. By having open communication, any issues that arise can be identified and dealt with before they’re allowed to fester.

Holding even short debriefing sessions after each interview can help to catch small issues—with the participants, how questions were phrased, or if a troubling or unpredictable subject came up—before they bloom into larger problems that may impact the outcomes of the research.

In the event that a member of the research team is having an off day, be it a physical or mental health issue, ensure that there are backup plans in place through the use of knowledge sharing, and standardized test plans/discussion guides that have been created before starting the test cycle. Limit unknowns by agreeing on research goals, objectives, and deliverables early on and hold yourself and your teammates accountable. Once the test plans are in place, they should remain consistent throughout the tests to maintain data purity.

Research Ops

Research operations managers, or team members filling that role, can build physiological safety for their coworkers by booking and paying for travel and accommodations in advance. Taking care of details ahead of time will lighten the cognitive load once the team is in-field. If you have influence over allocations, work to not spread researchers across multiple projects. Allow them the mental space to do their best work—and to rest.

Management: It’s your job to keep everything moving and everyone safe. Protect your researchers by creating a code of ethics. What are your company’s values? What are your research practice’s values? How do you track progress? What lines won’t you cross? 

Safe Spaces

Having a safe space, like a meditation space or even a secluded room without sight lines, at work allows researchers a moment to step away and gather their thoughts, building resilience. In worst cases, having a safe space to ride out an anxiety attack that may have been triggered during an interview or synthesis of troubling material can help researchers save face and avoid being accidentally confronted by well-meaning coworkers.

Before team retros, run an emotional check in to see where your team’s headspace is, since emotions will impact their impressions of the work. Speaking frankly about emotions in a team setting has a deeply humanizing effect, and can decrease imposter syndrome, and foster an empathetic environment.

After a long day of doing research in the field, have a safe, contained space to retreat to for decompression and rest.

2) Self Care for Researchers

Self care is an ethical imperative, it helps us do our jobs more effectively, and manage other people’s emotions. And by self care I don’t mean the buzzy #selfcare that often shows up on Instagram in the form of bubble baths and face masks, but the subtle, routine, and often unsexy ways that we truly take care of ourselves. Having a solid self-care regimen means that you’re still taking care of yourself even when you’re having an off day. This, again, builds resilience.

When in doubt, look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs if you need a frame of reference to check in with yourself. Eat healthy food, set time for some physical exercise, engage in proper sleep hygiene, and take even a few minutes a day to focus on your breathing and slow your heart rate down.

Practice creating safe spaces, both emotionally and physically, just as you would for your interview subjects. Be kind to yourself. Set realistic goals and expectations, and practice flexibility when circumstances change. Focus on balancing your work and personal life. Sure, all of these things are easier said than done but consider them as the framework for professional success.

Finally, go to therapy. Seeing a therapist, even on a one-off or occasional basis can help us understand how to recognize your own emotions.Therapists themselves see their jobs as impossible if they don’t have a self care regimen because they work so closely with people.

“User Experience Researchers are there to provide a service, but not servitude.”
– Vivianne Castillo

Emotional Self Care: Boundaries

Focus on what you have control over, and accept that you don’t always have control. Set healthy personal and emotional boundaries in terms of what works for you and what doesn’t.

Establishing boundaries is taking care of yourself, and keep in mind that your emotional boundaries will likely change over time, depending on your circumstances.

More Psychological Safety = More Empathy

Be present. The more present you are, the greater the likelihood is that you will really notice things while doing research. With a quiet mind, you’ll pick up on small, nuanced details about people’s stories and actions, generating deeper and more meaningful insights. If I’m present, I’m more equipped to be empathetic.

And empathy is critical in creating truly impactful products. At Connected, kindness is in our values and baked into a product development process for a reason: Being kind and listening to ourselves, our participants, and our clients’ end users is at the heart of building better products.

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