I’ve been working as a UX researcher in an agency setting for 6+ years now, and in my experience, every project and client is at least a little bit different. Sometimes the client relationship is straightforward, and I develop a quick rapport and feel in sync with the client. Sometimes those relationships are more complex. For me, with respect to client relationships, the role of empathy looms large in client questions or adjustments to the research plan.
I’ve had the (not uncommon) experience where a client asks a question, such as “what if we added a diary study to this project” (the project timeline has already been scoped), or “I’d like to revisit the study goals” (and is requesting a complete revamp the original plan). Especially early on in my career, my stomach would drop, my brain would immediately jump to all the reasons why the suggestion wouldn’t work, and I would have to fight for internal calm to construct a response to the request.
Ultimately, what is happening here is my natural human resistance to change. I have likely spent hours planning and put my heart and soul into my research plan/moderator guide/questions/methodology, and it can feel effortful to adapt my work to the change requests. What I have found (and have heard others’ similar reactions) is that my mind or emotions move to blame the agent of that change, namely the client. (In my head) like, “ugh, why are you trying to make my life hard!? Why are you changing your mind!? Why are YOU doing this to ME??”
In reflection on the early days of my consulting career and my observations of early career UXers, I suspect that some of this resistance to change is also due to our experience level. Earlier in our careers, we are getting used to methodologies, crafting questions, and writing research plans; tasks often take us more time as we haven’t yet built up the repetitions that eventually make that work feel more intuitive. Further, at an agency, we often learn new things on every project, from working with a new set of clients to learning a new industry or product/service type, so again, we have increased cognitive load. And finally, we often work under a pre-scoped contract, so there is a finite amount of time available for the work.
I sense two clues to empathy in this reflection… empathy can be more difficult to summon when we feel we’re not in control or have a lack of agency; increased cognitive load can also impact our empathy level.
Lack of agency is a great way to put it. Also, it’s genuinely hard to empathize with someone we don’t feel displays that empathy back towards us! Again, “Why are you doing this to me?!?!?!!?”
There’s probably a simple truth here: the one paying the bill (the client) doesn’t really have to care how their change impacts me. But I also think we generally over-personalize what’s happening, and if we’re courageous enough to engage or even disagree, there is usually a way forward. This reminds me of marital advice to realize “it’s not you against me” but “both of us against the problem.” In consulting, I see a project as an ongoing conversation between me and the client about how best to achieve their results. Requests to change something become a data point about what’s going to make success. I have the right to provide data points, too (such as deadlines or my strategic perspective), and then together, we decide the way forward.
I’m going to walk you through a few examples from my career:
On one of my first projects as a consultant, I was paired with a very senior researcher on our team (shoutout to Dan Delaney). Dan is an unparalleled model consultant that I had the pleasure and privilege to learn from. A self-described “Ad man” in a previous career, he led by example through empathy and active listening as he worked with our client. I remember on an early client call for this project (this was after the project had been scoped and a statement of work signed), the client threw out the idea of adding a diary study into the project. My silent and unseen (pre-Zoom days!) reaction to this request was, “What?! We don’t have time for this! How the heck are you thinking we’re going to do this??”
Meanwhile, Dan responded very calmly, genuinely, and thoughtfully, “Wow, that is a great idea! What are your hopes for that activity? What do you want to learn?” and so on. He continued, staying right “alongside” the client and her thoughts, exploring the idea and potential outcomes. And eventually, he (seemingly effortlessly) steered the conversation and plan back to the original scope of the project.
What I took away from that interaction was the crystal clear example of truly listening to the client. Not jumping immediately to the impact on the scope, but instead, exploring what is underneath the request. Why is the client suggesting a diary study? What are her goals? What is she really interested in learning? How do those goals influence the ultimate outcomes desired of the research as a whole? This way, we can deeply understand the client’s needs and uncover more layers contributing to the project.
This example of my experience comes from this year (so hopefully, you’ll witness an improvement from my previous experience :-) ). I was working with a client to conduct discovery research to support decision-making on their 2022 product strategy. Initially, the client and I decided that the research should be foundationally focused to promote a holistic understanding of their users. We developed a moderator guide and framework for data collection accordingly. A week or so before the user interviews were slated to start, we piloted the study using an internal subject matter expert as a participant. After the session, I debriefed the client. I thought the session went relatively well. The client, however, was very disappointed in the session. In her view, we had only gathered information that the team already knew.
Fortunately, I have learned a lot over my time as a consultant and developed my pathways to calmly address requests and have a conversation. And that is really what it takes. Being able to take a (deep) breath and dig into the request. And this is where empathy comes in.
In this example, through earlier conversations, I understood where the client was coming from. The business was experiencing customer churn (leaving the service), and they needed to more deeply understand the details around specific pain points contributing to churn. The initial plan to be foundationally focused lacked the depth desired to understand where they needed to pivot. So while the change request was relatively significant (I reworked the entire moderator guide and data collection framework to match the refined goals), I also understood the desire for the change and wanted to ensure that I was delivering the correct findings to truly help the team move forward.
I recently learned a phrase from a book on parenting (Parenting without Power Struggles, Susan Stiffelman) “How does this behavior make perfect sense?” I think it applies to these types of situations as well. Because as I came to realize (fortunately early in my agency career, thanks to wonderful role models and mentors) that our clients have whole other worlds that they’re dealing with, we often have relatively little visibility into those worlds. But asking that question (or before learning the phrase), asking myself, what could be going on with this person? What is happening on their side that I may not be aware of? That reflection opens up a whole host of possibilities and understanding, and with that comes empathy.
There is another clue to empathy hidden here as well… empathy can promote understanding, but I also think the reverse is true; sometimes, we need the understanding to promote empathy.
A bit of a chicken and egg dilemma!
The folks we work with are under pressure from their organizations to release a product, drive decision-making, etc., a universe of factors that we will miss without using our research skills. The client’s questions, suggestions, and requests reflect those pressures, combined with a genuine desire to make the research the best it can be to meet their goals. Ultimately that is what we’re trying to accomplish. It is my responsibility as a researcher and a partner in the project to extend every ounce of empathy that I find I can easily extend to users. Understanding their reality better (organization, pressures, goals, etc.) enables me to do my best work. The conversations, active listening, and uncovering reasons behind change requests inform vital shifts to the plan necessary to achieve the best possible research outcomes.
There is another clue hiding here as well, empathy is hard to summon when you feel on the spot and pressured to make a decision or take action.
I often need to ask for space to take a breath and consider change requests. And then, I can come back to the table with a topped-up tank of empathy and my thoughts in order. It takes courage to ask for what you need, and I still need to remind myself that it is okay to ask for that time.
In the next segment, Brian will look at what it means to have empathy as a parent. Not always an easy feat, I can say with surety as a parent of an almost 5-year-old!
If you haven’t already, check out the previous posts in our empathy series.
Exploring Empathy Part 1: An Introduction to the Series
Published on November 11, 2022