Empathy is not a survey: an introduction to Empathetic Research

Surveys create a baseline for data. They are an incredibly useful tool for generating reports on demographics and gathering basic quantitative data. Market research absolutely has a value and a role in product development. But surveys aren’t meant to stand on their own. Between the numbers, beyond the data, there is a story not being told — and vital information being overlooked.

Let’s look at the survey as an object. The answers and choices are limited (and for certain data collection, this absolutely makes sense). It’s a text-based method of collecting information. That means to take your survey, the surveyed person must have reading comprehension in your survey’s language. Even if they can read and understand, are any of the answers ambiguous? If it’s a digital survey, you’re counting on their internet connection, their screen size, and beyond that — if they are taking the survey at home, what is the environment like? Will the chaos and noise of the life around them alter their answers? If survey respondents answer a certain way, there isn’t much opportunity for a deeper dive for clarification on their response—even if you added a Why, Why Not field.


If you want to add an element of empathy (trust me, you do) to your research, and if you want to gather qualitative data to look beyond the numbers in your research, you want an empathy study.


Don’t be intimidated. It sounds grand, time-consuming and expensive, but be assured that it doesn’t need to be. The value in the information gathered will substantiate an even greater investment the next time an opportunity for empathy research comes along.


An empathy study is a lot like an ethnography or anthropological study. There are a few different approaches to this research, ranging in involvement from light to extremely heavy. I like to hang out somewhere near the middle — keeping a comfortable distance between the research subjects and my team in order to avoid appearing intimidating (or as a tourist).


Light Involvement


A phone interview is a great place to start if you are limited on time and resources, need a very small amount of information to validate/invalidate an assumption about your customers, and want to dip your toe into empathy research.


Please note the difference between a phone interview and a survey. While you will have a set of questions to work from and keep you on track, you’ll need to truly listen and ‘observe’ as much as you can about the person’s tone and engagement, adapting your questioning and asking for clarity to follow up as you go.


Medium-light Involvement


Socially awkward and anxious researchers, rejoice! Observation is a fantastic way to gather information without interacting with anyone. Permissions are important here, as it environment — this is not watching a conference room full of users behind a 2-way mirror. Watching users interact with either the problem you are trying to solve or the solution you have created will tell you great information that wouldn’t be captured on a survey. You can see if they constantly reach to the right for a light switch that is actually installed on the left — and perhaps make a note to move the switch to the right. Or if they walk to the back of the restaurant looking for the bathrooms and keep ending up in the kitchen, perhaps more obvious signage is needed.


Medium Involvement


An in-person interview is my absolute favorite method of data collection. You are observing people in their own environment and forging a genuine human connection to the people behind the numbers. You will feel panic at needing to take in everything at first, observing so many details and trying to capture an experience in quick notes while listening to your subject answer your questions. This will become easier with time (as will your shorthand, and your interpretation of your own shorthand!).


IDEO’s advice is to fall in love with each of your subjects a little bit. It sounds crazy at first but in the moment you’ll realize this is absolutely true. You can always find at least one thing to relate to someone about, and finding that connection will help you empathize with them as you hear their stories. Most people love to tell stories. It’s getting them to open up that’s the challenge.


Heavy Involvement


In true ethnographer style, embedding with your subjects is the heaviest involvement in the empathy research process. Like Jane Goodall or the TV show Undercover Boss, you will live among your test subjects and live as one of them.


I’m not sure if this is the best option for product research, but a happy compromise may be a combination of the observation and interview methods as you spend a great deal of time familiarizing yourself with your subjects and their environment, gathering as much of their experience as you can.


The data gathered from empathy research will tell you so much more than a survey, and you’ll return to your development processes armed with energy, passion and an unrivaled understanding of your user’s needs.

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