Compassion in Crisis: How to Conduct Empathy-Informed UX Research in COVID-19 Times

Originally published by UX Collective June 4, 2020 on Medium

By Marta Zarzycka
Experience Researcher
projekt202

As a UX researcher, these times are strange in multifaceted ways.

As individuals and communities, we rely on products and services to navigate through our days, keep up existing routines, and build new and hopefully better habits.

As the global COVID-19 crisis unfolds, these routines and these habits have shifted. Some died an abrupt death (daily commutes, eating out), while others intensified (Netflix consumption, podcasts, late-night online impulse-buying).

In recent months, while conducting remote fieldwork, I would discover mid-project that, intentionally or not, all of my research would at least partly touch upon the COVID-19 crisis. Clients and stakeholders struggle with business continuity, safety and well-being of their employees, and a shifting user base. End users of products and services experience their own behavioral and habit shifts.

Even though these projects were not directly targeting this changed reality, it was front of mind for practically all of my research participants. As a result, previously gathered data had lost its contextual validity and my original research questions fell flat. There was a cognitive dissonance between what I was asking and what I was hearing.

This shift led me to rethink the concept of empathy — a popular concept in UX circles, usually extended towards the users. Researchers and designers are called upon to “advocate for users’ needs” or “put themselves in users’ shoes.” What better time to advocate for empathy and compassion like the present, when economy, labor market, education, safety, and social bonds are all in flux, and the future is increasingly unpredictable?

EMPATHY: AN EMPTY CONSTRUCT?

The concept of empathy inspires a certain uneasiness in me. I am, after all, a former scholar studying how neoliberal culture is shaped by how affect and emotion play out on social media. In my current UX career, empathy is called upon so often that it has become an empty shorthand, written into project pitches, dropped into management meetings, and used when describing methods. Curiosity I can understand — it is an inexhaustible resource that comes effortlessly to me.

But empathy? Even though neurologists argue that empathy is hard-wired into our brains allowing us to automatically perceive and share others’ feelings, it is not a resource I can tap into endlessly and on command (Erika Hall writes about the challenges of “everyday empathy”). Besides, as cautioned by philosopher Laurent Berlant, I believe that the noble intentions of “putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes” are still predominantly about ourselves rather than about truly inhabiting others’ feelings.

But now we are all vulnerable, and empathy has acquired more meaning to me. We researchers are never our users — especially in times of crisis — but we join them in an ecosystem that has shifted and unraveled at a troubling velocity. We do things differently, often driven by anxiety, loss, and anticipatory fear ranging from the economic climate to the health of our loved ones.

The following sections map out how to carry out truly empathy-informed UX research, extending it not only to users, but also to stakeholders as well as your own research team.

STAKEHOLDERS: EMPATHY AS FLEXIBILITY

I am a researcher at projekt202, a consultancy working across industries, and many of our clients are now concerned with business continuity, shifting user bases, and the safety and well-being of employees. Large companies struggle with changing regulations, remote work models, and disrupted timelines, as well as depleted and delayed supply chains. For many small businesses and startups, their product/market niche no longer applies. How to offer empathy?

Empathy often translates into flexibility. Adjust your research goals. Adjustment is the buzzword across marketing, sales, and consulting worlds in COVID-19 times. We are witnessing examples of mega-employers who have successfully bridged the remote work gap, startups rapidly shifting to digital core, and small businesses that found a new market for a new product. Lean into that. Talk to decision makers about their growing or diminishing user base, revised innovation budgets, ramped-up security, and pipeline for projects revised since COVID-19. Do not be afraid to flex — perhaps right now your expertise is needed to facilitate a remote workshop generating new business ideas rather than re-prioritize product features that many users no longer need.

Take any extra steps to remain sensitive to your stakeholders’ current situations. Quickly assess whether the business in question is vulnerable, future-proof, or desperately needs to pivot. Some industries are better equipped for adjustment than others. For example, due to increased connectivity needs, telecom, telemedicine, and video conferencing companies have been presented with opportunities to adjust to continuous change while expanding their business. But businesses that traditionally require physical closeness — hospitality, travel, retail — often cannot be virtualized and struggle to adapt to core human drives: desire for companionship, energy of a gathering, a need to celebrate or comfort with food, the satisfaction of physical ownership of an object.

These are the times for strategizing, even if it is out of your comfort zone. It is not only your clients’ present that is different — their future is perhaps even more unknown. Long- and short-term planning have to be adjusted, business goals need rewriting, timelines dragged out, and internal projects cut short or canceled. Now, in this wonky reality, it is the time to think beyond everyday maintenance and let your intuition speak and guide your research objectives. Intuition, when backed up by research, builds great products and services.

Keep timing in mind. UX researchers have argued that the disaster management model, informed by humanitarian aid research, can spur thinking about how to create empathetic, crisis-informed UX. Consecutive stages of the model are:

1. Preparedness — ensure appropriate resources, set emergency protocols in place and test them

2. Response — safeguard and minimize disruption, support regular operations along with disaster response

3. Recovery — map out the return to a state of normality, support those affected most

4. Mitigation — taking actions that reduce the likelihood of another break

Keep these stages in mind when scoping research frameworks, setting milestones, and building your team. Consider an iterative approach and shorter research cycles in order to flex as needed.

USERS: EMPATHY AS AWARENESS

When in the (virtual) field, I have increasingly discovered that the knowledge I had accumulated on end users was based on a world that no longer exists. Users’ collaboration and communication needs and means have changed, and tasks and goals have expanded or contracted. While the paradigm has shifted, the tools they have to shift with it are lagging with no viable alternatives on the market. All the while, users are at their most vulnerable, experiencing economic, social, and psychological challenges in rapid succession.

Be aware of that vulnerability and don’t play it down. Any snapshot you might have of users of the products or services you study no longer reflects their current context. If you haven’t updated your user research within the past weeks, consider a rapid user needs assessment to identify crisis-responsive design considerations. Allow its outcomes to inform your research plan, recruitment, data collection methods, and the ways you socialize your outcomes. Remember, while collecting data, that honesty, sensitivity, consent, and, in some cases, trauma-informed interviewing techniques are more important than ever.

Keep in mind that we are all not affected equally. While the COVID-related crisis is often seen as a great equalizer (“we are all in it together”), each crisis exacerbates the differences between users. A crisis always takes a disproportionate toll on precarious groups: frontline workers; laid-off workers; individuals with comorbidities, mental health issues, or disabilities. Add to that people whose online access became severely limited during the lockdown, people that feel unsafe at home or are homeless, and people struggling with poverty. Inclusion-centric recruiting of research participants is of essence.

RESEARCHERS: EMPATHY AS SPACE

Finally, practice empathy towards yourself and your research team. Your work processes, access and reach have been disrupted. Many of us lack a solid VC infrastructure, robust project-tracking, and protocols for asynchronous work to prioritize, triage and address emerging issues. Similarly, we might miss reliable virtual tools for sharing and commenting on designs, internal tools for chat and updates on work. Many of us struggle with working from home as work blurs into family life. And some of us face the very same challenges as our users — economic, social, and psychological ones. How do we adapt and still do our jobs?

Take your own advice. The flexibility and awareness you extend to your stakeholders and users serve you as well. Use them to create a space for yourself to think broadly, beyond your immediate areas of expertise, and really triangulate between methods that suit you best at the moment — whether these are remote interviews, surveys, or a diary study. This might be a good time for a thorough and thoughtful desktop research, often the forgotten child of a project. Review your findings early and often and allow for the space and time to pivot. Make sure your team is united on that journey and that they have the space to be flexible, too.

Give space to your own frustrations and potentially let them lead you to a new research direction. For example, I noticed that the aggregated data on the virus is complex and messy: news editors often use red to add drama to charts and graphs, axes are shortened to make the numbers stand out, cities on maps are shaded without reference to their population size, and denominators are omitted while quoting numerators. While those practices trigger my anxiety on a daily basis, they also make me curious about news apps users. Do they consider themselves well-informed about the pandemic? And, if so, is anxiety really a fair price to pay for being well-informed? Let feelings like fear or boredom lead you to the unhappy paths users experience and guide your research to paramount themes you would have missed otherwise.

PLEASE REMEMBER THAT EMPATHY IS NOT AN EVENT. IT IS A PROCESS.

Like every emotion, it is given and received in time. Continue to ensure your research is empathy-informed through every stage — from ideation through socializing the deliverables. Empathy will unfold organically as you work and navigate through this crisis.

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projekt202

projekt202 is the leader in applying experience strategy and observational insights to the design and development of mobile, cloud, web and workplace software.