How a UX Researcher's empathy can hurt their research

By Terika Seaborn-Brown

As a UX researcher do you ever consider that your empathy could be preventing you from getting the best results from your user testing? Feeling too greatly for your participants could be inhibiting your ability to conduct research that shows a user's natural reactions and behaviours to the product you're testing.

The problem is that empathetic people, which UXers naturally are, take on the emotions of those around them. Not only those of the participant struggling with the prototype that they are testing, but the designer in the observation room nervous about impressing their boss, and product owners bored of hearing the fourth participant in a row say, “I don’t like blue. You should make it red.”

If they aren’t careful, empathy (for the participant, the designer, the product manager) can distract a UX researcher from the ultimate objective of a usability test: identifying usability issues. 

When I first started moderating usability tests, I felt for the participants. I got uncomfortable when they were uncomfortable, frustrated when they were frustrated. Rather than exploring what participants were thinking or looking for whilst they were struggling, I started unconsciously hinting at what they should be doing, such as:

1. Slumping when the participant is off track.

This posture implies disappointment and hints that the participant is doing something wrong and that they should reverse and correct. When not slumping, participants must rely on the design in front of them (as they do in the wild) to give them warnings and corrections.

2. Fidgeting (i.e. tapping a pen, wiggling a foot, bouncing a knee) when the participant is lost.

Conveying annoyance and/or disinterest by fidgeting causes participants to hurry through tasks with little thought or consideration, which they may not do naturally.

3. Cocking my head to the side when participant has done/said something illogical (i.e. when asked to go to the home page, they open a new web page and type it into Google rather than click on the logo in the upper right corner).

Remember: You are not your user. You are likely a much savvier user (especially of modern internet patterns). Participants may do things in unexpected ways, your job is to take note.

4. Throat clearing, taking frequent sips of water when the participant was committing an error I had seen already.

If you are getting distracted or bored, then your participant will too. Although they may be committing an error someone else committed already, your job is then to understand if they did it for the same core reason. 

5. Keeping my eyes on my notes instead of the participant’s actions when bored or tired. 

Participants check out if they think you aren’t paying attention – they click on random elements and spend more time than is realistic examining what’s in front of them. Additionally, you can’t note a participant’s behaviour if you aren’t watching them. Develop your short-hand, record sessions, and ask your note-taker for verification.

It didn't take long for participants to pick up on my patterns. They watched me more than focusing on the screen in front of them. They glanced in my direction when they were unsure what to do next. They didn't show me what they would do naturally. And thus I wasn't seeing what usability issues would occur in the wild - I completely missed the point of the test in the first place.

Luckily, my coach came to my rescue, advising me,

"You are there to collect data. You are not there to be their friend."

So, I adjusted. I took on the neutral, relaxed but alert posture I had seen him adopt. I admit, at first it felt like I was being downright cold - not reflecting, helping or hinting. However, I soon discovered that when I treated the session like an observation instead of a conversation, the participant forgot I was there and interacted naturally with the prototype. It was only then that I could do my job - identify as many usability issues as possible. 

After getting over my fear of not being a friend, I was finally able to watch and learn.

Terika Seaborn-Brown

I help clients understand how to make it easy for their customers to do business with them. As a Principal Consultant, I’m responsible for understanding our clients’ needs, shaping project and programme briefs, ensuring quality execution, and encouraging the implementation and socialisation of research findings.

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