Want empathy? Be vulnerable.

Auldyn Matthews
Jun 5 · 6 min read

“The snowball starts rolling when a leader is willing to be vulnerable with his or her subordinates.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

I read this quote last night, and then changed it.

“The ideas start rolling when a designer is willing to be vulnerable with his or her users.”

It sparked an insight that has lived deeply within me about how to do good qualitative research: I must be vulnerable with the participant. This comes in many shapes and forms, but at its core, when we ask users to bare their souls to us, we must first show some of ours to them.

Let me take a step back for a second and establish a foundation. My research background started in psychology labs, where rigor, consistency, and illusion are the focus. Academic research is there to help us discover “what is” to benefit our general knowledge. Therefore, saying the same words and treating each participant as the same is critical to the outcome of that research.

What about design research (or UX research)? Here, research serves a different purpose. Design research provides inspiration for ideas. Yes, we do synthesis and analysis that result in findings. However, the findings help us look to the future of what “could be” instead of what “is” today. Our users’ vulnerabilities inspire the “could be”. With this shift in our purpose, the methods must shift as well.

Design research requires empathy and compassion, meaning we need to step into the mind, body, and spirit of our users. What a vulnerable place to be! In an hour, we expect a total stranger to share with us joy, excitement, transformation, mistakes, failures, despair, and death. It’s an extremely limited timeframe to hope someone else opens up to us fully and candidly.

But as we know, this empathy results in gold. In our gut, we feel when it happens. Those contextual inquiries or interviews where we connect with our participants, and discover what their lives are really like and in a moment we’re transported to the future where that person doesn’t suffer. (Then usually the sessions ends too early and we beg them for another 10, 15, or 60 minutes.) These sessions don’t just happen magically — being a good facilitator helps us break through the surface. And to do that, we must show our vulnerability first.

Let’s first familiarize ourselves with the 3 participant archetypes, which one participant may embody one or flow back and forth between many.

  • The Scaredy Cat: This participant is timid and afraid. Asking them a question results in 1–2 word responses. It’s like pulling teeth to get anything more. They may not appear afraid, but this lack of response is just underlying fear.
  • The Apologist: In contextual inquiries or usability tests, every task ends with an “Did I talk about the right thing? I hope so. I’m sorry I didn’t clarify before.” They’re hyper aware of what they say.
  • The Oversharer: BEWARE. These participants sound like they’re rolling out insights but they’re not. Talking is an unconscious safety mechanism that will get you off track. They start off on an interesting track, but oops, 20 minutes later you’re both sharing cat pictures. Now you’ve spent half your session and don’t have any relevant data.

Why do these archetypes exist? Are all my participants crazy? No! Remember, this is a scary place to be with a stranger. We’re asking another human to open up so that we may fix them. We have to remind them physically and verbally that we are safe.

Help me, Obi Wan. How do I show vulnerability?

1. Consider the research space. Why do therapist offices not look like offices? Because an office’s interior doesn’t conduce comfort. Provide refreshments, tissues, and ideally, a cozy atmosphere that communicates to the participant that you’re a human, just like them, interested in making their life better. I don’t recommend usability labs with one way mirrors because people often hold back (AKA Hawthorne Effect). When others need to watch a live session, I will set up a Zoom call and let the participant know that I have some on the team listening in and they may ask questions from time to time. That way, there’s less of a visual reminder to the user that others are watching.

2. Talk to users like they’re people. The words “participant” and “user” remove some of the humanness from the process. Don’t refer to them as a user or participant to their face and memorize their name.

3. Make a good first impression. Write a personable introduction to the research study. Don’t try to trick them like in psychology studies (unless you’re running a causal study). Honestly, the more personality brought to the introduction, the better. (To what degree depends on the domain and how professional the session needs to be!) My goal is to make 2–3 jokes in the introduction. This shows that I’m open to a conversation and I’m not a scientist with a lab coat. Usually, this already will mitigate some of The Scaredy Cat and Apologist tendencies. Here’s a very casual example:

Hi [name], I’m Auldyn. You’ve probably been wondering how to pronounce that, and now you know. Thanks so much for joining today. I really appreciate you taking the time to show me how you go about your day to day tasks. During our session, I’ll be asking you some questions and taking notes, unless it gets boring and then I’ll start doodling — just kidding! When you answer questions, feel free to be as candid as possible in your answers. There are no right or wrong answers. Do you have any questions before we get started?

4. Set expectations. Be clear and concise about your goal of the session. Setting up the expectations at the top will help avoid The Apologist and keep The Oversharer on track. Be humble and tell the user you may mess up, too, and it’s okay to question any part of the session. Example:

In today’s session, I’ll be asking you questions, but I’d like to focus on how you actually complete your tasks. If you’re comfortable, I may ask you to show me how you complete a task using your computer and any other materials. When you show me what you’re doing, walk me through it as though you’re training me. If I ask any questions that don’t make sense or if I’m using terminology incorrectly, feel free to correct me.

5. Find moments to connect with the participant. Relate to the user. Tell stories. Show horror, excitement, and joy if they’re telling a personal anecdote (but not during usability testing). This is mostly when we’re doing any kind of highly emotional research.

  • When dealing with emotional moments, remind the participant that they can open up as much as they’re willing, but they can stop speaking or leave the session at any time. If appropriate and in lighter situations, tell them about a similar situation you’ve been in and how tough it was. (Do not tell them “But you’ll get through it” as that can trivialize their feelings.)
  • When a user becomes apologetic during usability testing, tell them that even as a designers mess up sometimes. Tell them about a recent time when you messed up using a poorly designed user interface.
  • If a Scaredy Cat just won’t give anything, don’t be afraid to run through the script and end the session. There can be a number of reasons why they aren’t opening up. But make sure you thank them for opening up and telling any anecdotes at the end of the session. Knowing that you listened and actually are repeating back to them may open them up to telling you insights. Don’t turn off the recording device until your participant has left the room!

Ironically in UX research we forget that a human is the user. When we see our participants struggling, not opening up, etc. this is usually because we’ve done a poor job building rapport and creating a safe space to let them be vulnerable. Empathizing with our users allows us to grab those nuggets that transform into great ideas, but first we must be humble and vulnerable.

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Auldyn Matthews

Written by

UX Researcher and Designer. I nerd out about human behavior, cat-human interaction, and how to make the world a better place. auldynmatthews.com

The Startup

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