Empathy and Self-awareness: two essential skills of a UX Researcher

Susana Vilaça
6 min readFeb 10, 2022

As UX Researchers, our primary goal is to create Empathy with our users, understand who they are, their behaviours, the problems they face while using our products or services, and understand their feelings and emotions. I’ve been doing research for some years, and I’ve come to realise that this last part, the feelings and emotions, is the hardest to get and correctly interpret.

Theory tells us that qualitative research is the right approach to capture feelings and emotions. Assuming that we choose the proper techniques and ask the right questions, there is one thing that we can’t predict and control — human interactions. Human interactions are unique in time and are highly dependent on several variables, like the context, each person’s humour, culture, personality, etc. Empathy and self-awareness are two skills I find essential in navigating this uncertainty in human interactions and getting the most out of the research.

Empathy

Empathy is our ability to recognise, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. It can be seen as our capacity to place ourselves in another’s position.

Norman Nielsen Group has a great article on Empathy where it says:

In UX, empathy enables us to understand not only our users’ immediate frustrations, but also their hopes, fears, abilities, limitations, reasoning, and goals. It allows us to dig deep into our understanding of the user and create solutions that will not only solve a need, but effectively improve our users’ lives by removing unnecessary pain or friction.

Empathy is something that requires effort. Putting oneself in another’s position includes imagining oneself as the other, and more specifically, imagining oneself as the other in that particular situation in which that person is. To empathise, we need to have some knowledge of the person and what she is trying to do. Empathy can be seen in a spectrum of understanding and effort, where pity requires less effort and understanding, and compassion requires the most effort and understanding. The following diagram illustrates this:

Source: Sympathy vs Empathy in UX, Norman Nielsen Group, April 21, 2019

Pity is a feeling of discomfort for somebody else’s distress. When we feel pity, the only effort is to make our unpleasant feelings go away. Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone, and it involves more engagement with that person. However, sympathy does not include a shared perspective or emotions, unlike Empathy.

Compassion requires the highest effort and engagement and is associated with a desire to alleviate the suffering of the other.

As UX practitioners, our sweet spot lies in feeling Empathy for our users. While doing UX research is a way to create more Empathy with our users, it’s not the only thing we can do. We need to be humble, acknowledge our own bias and accept what we see and hear from our users. We also need to be mindful of ourselves and our attitudes. We need to build a relationship with our users, so it’s important to listen without judging and welcome other people’s opinions.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness represents the capacity of becoming the object of one’s attention. In this state, one actively identifies, processes and stores information about the self.

Self-awareness is often seen as a critical component in leadership and career success. As Tascha Eurich puts in her Harvard Business Review article:

Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies.

Then she goes on to define two types of self-awareness:

Across the studies we examined, two broad categories of self-awareness kept emerging. The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. […] The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above.

One of the things that make self-awareness such an essential skill for user research is that it is proved that higher self-awareness, especially external self-awareness, increases our ability to understand others and be more empathic.

The more we are self-aware, the better we understand others and recognise how we are different and similar.

Practising Empathy and self-awareness

I find the Johari Window model interesting. The Johari window model is used to enhance the individual’s perception of others and is based on two ideas — trust can be acquired by revealing information about you to others and learning from their feedback. A 2x2 grid represents each person in a given interaction:

The Open area or Arena is where communication occurs, and the larger the open area becomes more productive and dynamic the relationship is.

When it comes to Self-Awareness, we can increase it by either growing the Open or the Hidden areas — the first by asking for feedback, reducing the Blind area — the second by some means of self or shared discovery, reducing the unknown area.

Two Johari Windows are present when conducting research: ours and the users. Here is an illustration of a potential user Johari window and what we can do to increase the Arena area.

Here is an illustration of a potential user Johari window and what we can do to increase the Arena area. Initially, the user’s Arena is small, so the idea is to increase it. We want to know more about this person. So we ask her questions, and the Hidden area decreases. We can observe her or do some collaborative sessions with her and understand things she might not even be aware of (information from the Blind or Unknown areas). It comes to under whether we want to address problems and needs they have identified or address more tacit and latent needs.

In summary, Empathy and self-awareness are two essential skills for UX Researchers because they allow us to understand better our users, their needs, motivations, and the more emotional side of them using our products or services.

Being more self-aware is essential for creating Empathy with others as it allows us to understand better how other people are different or similar to us.

Using the Johari Window, we can practise self-awareness and think about what information we want to get from our users.

This article was originally published on the Service Design College network.

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