Killing Compassion in Sensitive User Interviews

This week I interviewed 6 users for a financial advisory service. Hand on heart, it was one of the most difficult user testing days I have endured. The participants were not difficult. The website, albeit a prototype, did work. It was the moderation which proved the hardest.

Empathy and compassion are key qualities to any researcher. Even for anyone who works with people to understand them. Yet sometimes our desire to help people can get in the way.

Users with financial difficulties

The people I spoke to for this research were primarily there because they struggled with money and were in debt. Although there were still a range of different backgrounds.

Some had undergraduate degrees. A few were single parents. Most expressed that they struggled to save money. Others shared that they had to choose between not being broke or paying bills.

One person had an annual income of £6000.

How the day started

I started my interviews full of sympathy, empathy and compassion. For most usability studies, I find myself taking on a role of ‘we’re in this together’, especially if the website is terrible. This is because I feel guilty torturing my users with terrible websites. Especially while I sit, say nothing and answer their questions with more questions.

This time, I found my jaw dropping at debts that someone explained had spiralled out of control. I found myself nodding my head too much. I felt my tone of voice was more sympathetic than usual.

Compassion was getting in the way of my research

Nodding was my way of empathising with them. But at one point my jaw dropped. Even writing that line I can feel the judgement and shocks of horrors from other researchers. I am mortified, looking back. But I made the call in my interviews to show compassion with the people sat in front of me sharing their difficult situations.

I am a researcher, but I am still a human first. Showing compassion to people in research sessions is completely fine, and is human. Feelings are the user experience. But asking for those feelings is more difficult when discussing sensitive topics. My compassion was turning the interviews into what felt like counselling sessions.

Unintentionally I felt insincere

I will admit I am scared of being in debt. The only debts I have are for my degrees, because I deem my higher education as a necessity and worth more than being in debt. So, I didn’t feel that I was coming across as sincere. It’s very easy to see the world in black and white. Especially when you have such strong feelings and are so proactive about something. Debt is scary. And if I can’t afford something, I don’t have it.

Users opened my eyes up to how easy it is to get yourself in debt. For one participant, one missed payment on a loan of £80 had spiralled into a £400 debt. The situations are often completely out of someone’s control.

Users weren’t there for my compassion

A few days after the research I met with Hugo Froes, a fellow UX Designer and Adam Banks, co-founder of UX-Study who put was I feeling into perspective. We as researchers are there to understand people so that we can help them. We are the champions of their needs, battling with shit websites day after day.

But those users weren’t there for my sympathy. I like to think that talking through some of their problems may have helped their state of mind. I was there to help them, but in that moment I couldn’t. I could not help each individual walking through my office doors right there and then.

Use the tone of your client

Probing and listening to users talk about the language of the website actually taught me how to change my moderation style.

“I think it is very understanding. I think it’s well put and it shows that they understand people’s problems.”

This is exactly how I should have started my moderation. Moderation requires you to be neutral, but in an almost, not quite positive way. You want to be reassuring that there is no wrong or right answer and anything they share is ‘right’. Just like the website, I was there to understand their thoughts not judge or correct them.

Using the language and tone of the website also helped how I felt when speaking to my participants. Rather than sympathising or taking on this ‘hero’ approach, I had to almost numb myself. In the sense that I couldn’t allow myself to take anything personal or onboard. My expressions became more blank. My body language had to almost become stern (as I’m an expressive person). Not to the point of looking robotic, but creating a relationship similar to that of a doctor and patient. One free of judgement and focuses on understanding the situation to fix it.

These people were in debt. That was okay. I could not help them in that moment. And that was okay. Because right now I needed to just understand their why and how.

Originally published at on July 29, 2017.