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What the heck is empathy, anyway? Babz explains how to effectively practice empathy and active listening in your UX research practice.
[3:47] What is empathy anyway?
[7:40] Being empathetic with your stakeholders can create more impactful research.
[17:03] How radical listening can change your research practice.
[24:52] How Babz uses note-taking skills she learned with Russian diplomats to improve her listening.
Babz Jewell is a sociologist and leader in leveraging ethnographic research methods for corporate UX, CX and product design. She is currently the Principal User Experience Researcher at Variant, a driver-focused long-haul trucking company. There, she leads research operations and projects for driver-facing products and support with ethnographic methods.
Babz: [00:00:00] I think radical listening is hearing what people have to say, even if it's outside of this script or discussion guide or product testing. So much rich data can come from the sort of offhand comments or conversations and you can be proven wrong over and over again.
Erin: [00:00:35] Hello everybody. And welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today, we're here with Babz Jewell. She's the principal UX researcher at Variant. And today I am very excited to talk about a topic that I know everyone listening probably thinks about a lot, empathy. But specifically, we're going to talk about empathy in practice AKA inclusion. We'll be talking about inclusion as a practical, tangible way to practice empathy and you know, dig into what this empathy stuff is and all of that. So Babz, thanks so much for joining us.
Babz: [00:01:10] Yeah. Thank you, Erin. Thank you for having me here to talk about empathy and inclusion.
Erin: [00:01:15] Very excited to have you. JH is here too.
JH: [00:01:18] Yeah, I'm hoping I don't ask any un-empathetic questions during this episode, so I'm going to do my best.
Babz: [00:01:23] that's part of it though. Isn't it? It's practice. Empathy is a practice. So feel free to practice.
JH: [00:01:29] I will be practicing.
Erin: [00:01:30] Yeah, I think humility goes a long way here. Be very wary of the person who says that, like. Can you say you're an empath without being too boastful? I don't know, I guess it is a practice we can all try to get better at, but you don't ever reach this sort of ideal state of pure empathy. Agree or disagree Babz?
Babz: [00:01:50] Yeah, I would say it'd be hard to completely lose your ego. And I don't really think the goal of empathy is to lose yourself or dissolve yourself, but more like specifically locate yourself as an interpreter. As somebody who's collaborating with empathy, of course, I think practicing empathy involves de-centering yourself.
So making sure that you're not the lens through which you're viewing other people, but you try your hardest to recognize that lens and counteract it through empathetic practice. This is something we talk about in sociology and ethnography too.
You have to recognize that you do have a role. You can't pretend that you don't. But you know, just being very explicit about that.
Erin: [00:02:31] Yeah, I liked that a lot. It's not this sort of Buddhist, elimination of self, but rather an acknowledgement of self. And where am I in this? And how is that informing what I see and know, and believe as I evaluate others' experiences.
You know, empathy, I think, is one of those words that sort of eludes a neat definition, which means it's an interesting thing to talk about for an hour potentially. So what is empathy? You know, how do you kind of approach empathy when it comes up?
What does that mean to you?
Babz: [00:03:00] Yeah. Great. So I'm most comfortable actually addressing empathy in practice by explaining the way that I like to lead user experience research or service design, which is a space that I've been moving into recently in my new role at Variant, which is a trucking company.
I would like though to provide folks with some context. So I got to be a part of the very first cohort humanity centered, which of course is Vivian Castillo's project. So she had an individual named Jor-El Caraballo and he's out of New York city and he's a therapist. And his idea of empathy, I'll sort of paraphrase it a little bit because this was helpful for me in setting kind of like a definition around empathy that is a little different than practice.
Empathy is essentially the idea of putting yourself in someone else's shoes. You're really taking on or approximating what that person is actually feeling. You're trying to live in that space with them not pitying or seeing yourself as separate from them. But you're trying to tap into how they feel about their own experiences. So you're not judging them. Right. It's removing your own filters of what do I want, or how do I feel?
So, an example of how I could see this in the product world. Right now a lot of what I'm doing at variant is designing employee programs for our employees who are long haul over the road truckers. So how can I have conversations with truck drivers that help me determine what kind of rewards are meaningful for them. So not exactly putting myself in their shoes, but really listening.
Right? So that's one way that we can practice empathy is listening. So you can craft a better understanding of what folks want. And that's one way to practice empathy. And not just thinking about yourself as the center of the conversation or the center of product design. And I think that is something we see a lot in corporations, like when people become out of touch with customers or with people who use their products, they can default to this point of, well, I like this.
So everyone must like this. You know, that's like one extreme example of how to not be empathetic.
Erin: [00:05:12] Yeah.
JH: [00:05:13] Is it the mistake we do fall into just like the word empathy, right? If you just interpret it, a surface level is like, I care about other people almost, which is, I know it's not what it is, but I think maybe that's how people take it. And then, so people just like, like to say, like I'm empathetic because I'm a good person and I care about others, but what you're describing is like to really be empathetic, you need to like deeply understand someone's situation and really focus on it and try to understand where they're coming from.
Not just be like, you know, I wish them well, right? Like you have to really do the work to unpack some of it is that, is that kind of like where maybe it gets misused?
Babz: [00:05:45] I think so. I think I would say that it's a good starting point to say that you care about people, right? You are interested in people's experiences and you're interested in honoring them and hearing them. I like to think about empathy as creating a product where you humanize customers. And also a part of that critically is humanizing your colleagues and stakeholders. And then through humanizing and focusing on people's experiences, you can bridge these gaps between perspectives. You can fill knowledge gaps by listening, by really listening and hearing people.
And by restating what you're hearing too. So you can listen to a colleague, a stakeholder, a customer, and you can restate what you're hearing, and then you can leave room for them to correct you. And say like, no, you haven't quite got this right.
And then when you create. A more collaborative approach with research. You are centering your customers and not yourself or your particular business objectives. You're really creating a human centered product. I think that it's important to remember that. You know, as a business, that when our product is best suited for our customers is going to be the most successful. So I really believe that business strategy and goals it's in the best interest and you will become more profitable if your product is excellent, right?
If it meets people's needs.
Erin: [00:07:06] Yeah and but to get meta too on that, right? Like a lot of stakeholders, you know, I mean, people have been trying to sell the business value of UX for a long time. And I think largely, and not everywhere and not fully, but that story is moving in a direction that we generally like, which is that more and more people see that with examples like Amazon and customer obsession and so on.
But there are, especially on, you know, The quantitatively minded side, perhaps the, you know, the accounting, the people controlling the purse strings and so on, maybe a hesitation in some contexts to truly believe that. And that a good user experience will translate into dollars. And, you know, I wonder. Can empathy be useful there too, right?
Where it's like, well, this person's, they're not coming from a bad perspective. Like how can I, you know, understand where they're coming from with that hesitation and meet them halfway, or you're bringing that user perspective to them to kind of paint a picture of how meeting the user's needs is going to translate into dollars.
Babz: [00:08:10] Yeah. Which is really why, when I think of an inclusive research practice, the first step is being inclusive with your stakeholders. So I, before I start any research project now, and I will admit that, like I, haven't always been the most inclusive in my research practice. I've been a researcher for five years.
And for about three of those years, I've been in, I've been working for corporate businesses. But now. I will always start my research practice by talking to stakeholders, trying to figure out what kind of questions they want answered and making sure that those questions are answered. If you pit yourself against people whom you don't really understand, or who you think like, ah, they're really out of touch with research, they don't know what UX is.
That is not empathetic. And it makes your job harder. That's an area that I've been really stretching into recently is like working with stakeholders who might not believe in you. But if you take the first step and trust and believe in that person that goes a long way to actually ensuring your own success.
So your personal success as a researcher, the quality of your work. It's really handy when you work with people that you get along with and people who like you, and then when you like them. And I'm not saying like, It's up to you as a researcher, you know, to make sure difficult people are less difficult to work with or something.
Cause you're always going to have, you know, barriers of, of sort working with, you know, hundreds of different people. I do design workshops now, like design thinking workshops, service design workshops, because that's really how you're going to be successful as a researcher is that when your whole team is in alignment and when they come to you and say like, Hey Babz can you help me answer this question?
Because you did such a great job last time. And you know, I really feel comfortable around you and I feel comfortable that you can support me and you can make me successful, you know, along with yourself along with our customers. That sort of thing.
JH: [00:10:08] To zoom out a little and to maybe ask kind of a dumb question. It obviously sounds like a good thing, right? We're doing research. We want to be empathetic and really be, you know, practice, active, listening, and understand where someone's coming from and try to put ourselves in their shoes and do all those things.
How does that actually end up being better than a researcher, maybe who's, you know, doing it a little bit more coldly and going through the motions. So they show up with their script and they're just saying, you know, Hey, when's the last time you went to the gym? Can you tell me about it? And it's not.
And like just taking notes and not, you know, not really empathizing, but just kind of going through the motions and probably getting a few takeaways, right? Like, okay, this person, you know, does these types of behaviors and this and that, like what is the added richness or benefit that, you know, really approaching that with empathy like unlocks for people.
Babz: [00:10:49] like with customers or stakeholders
JH: [00:10:51] I guess either I was thinking from like, you know, talking to customers, but if you think it's more back on the stakeholder side, I think either works.
Babz: [00:10:57] Yeah, cool. I think, okay. Happy to address both. So first off, the example that I think of with the benefit of being empathetic with stakeholders is that you get buy-in, you get a place in the room, you get first dibs on work. They're not going to outsource it. I think in contrast, if you're not empathetic with stakeholders and not collaborative. You can be easily dismissed.
I mean, I've definitely been in that position where I didn't lead empathetic research and my project was just tossed and nobody looked at it and nobody was interested in it because they couldn't relate to it and they weren't invested in it. So it's not even optional really to include stakeholders at this point.
I don't see it as optional at all. And then as far as work with customers goes, I think it's very similar if you get buy-in. So right now, as I've mentioned, I work a lot with our over the road, truckers at variant. When I get buy-in with truckers that like, you know, they trust me to listen and they trust me to accurately represent their experiences that we can build better products for them and they will stick around and they will be part of the company.
So, If anyone's familiar with long haul trucking over the road, trucking has a very high rate of drivers quitting. So I think it's like 120% of drivers will quit your company. So you're losing 120% year over year, which is shocking, right? So there's a strong benefit if I work with drivers and listen to drivers and do my very best to represent their experiences and so that my teams can design solutions and programs and rewards that best fit them.
I'm meeting my company's mission of keeping our drivers. And I think that variant is a very interesting example of a customer and human centered business, which is why I joined the company back in February, because they're so successful right now, like variant is blowing up in the trucking world in a way that like really doesn't have a parallel.
And I was able to see that, and I'm really glad to be a part of that. And I think it is to the credit of the company that it is very customer centered. I've never been in a place that is so obsessed with customers like Erin, I think like you mentioned earlier this idea of customer obsession.
There, there is so much business gain in that.
Erin: [00:13:59] Yeah. So, I like how in the natural course of talking about empathy, inclusion keeps coming up and really like, if you want to be empathetic with people. Well, like, duh, you have to include them. Right. And so we talked a little bit about what, you know, with stakeholders that's obvious, right? Like if you want to understand your stakeholders where they're coming from, like, what are their biases?
What are they, you know, what motivates them? What do they not care about? And you can understand that then you can package research. In a way that's going to be well received. And you have to include the people who are going to either support or get in the way of your research to be able to do that.
How does that manifest with, like, let's say truckers or with other customers, maybe you've talked to, what does inclusion look like?
Babz: [00:14:45] Yeah. What does inclusion look like? So I think. I mentioned earlier that the talk that I revisited with Darale talks about active listening, right? It's almost therapeutic when people feel heard and when people become less defensive and then they, there can be this co- trust created.
And then I think really anything is possible. Like, whatever questions you have, that that person wants to explore with you. If you have this established rapport and trust you're much more likely to be able to go there with this person. And in my case, building employee programs for truckers, like I'm really here to make sure that truckers feel supported in real ways.
So, I mean, my background is in ethnographic sociology. And when I shifted from academia to out of academia the intention was to bring my research methodology to a space that was affecting people. Like products, they affect people. Companies affect people. I believe that sociology is very powerful and I believe that through my sociological practice, I can help people.
Like, ultimately that's my goal is to help people, right. I mean, of course it's a job and I work for a for-profit entity. But I think the reality is that most people do come in contact with, for profit entities. So like, what would it be like if everyone had this sociological empathy, like a radical listening approach in product design?
Like, can you possibly imagine what the world would be like? Like I'm just trying to do my best in my corner of this trucking world to affect our 1000 drivers. So making sure there are a thousand drivers at Variant who feel heard, protected, supported, that they trust their company. I mean, all of us, like white collar workers as well.
Like we want to work for a place that is intrinsically motivating, right? Like extrinsically, we can get the salary we want, but if it's extremely toxic and if you're scared to go to work, like you're not going to feel good. So like how can we. How can we bring that to like every level of corporate design?
That's an ideal, that's a utopia and I've probably gone off track from what your question was, but that's
Erin: [00:16:57] No, that's. That's what the show's all about. Oh, good.
JH: [00:17:00] You brought up the sociology background in academia. I certainly thought of when I think of empathy and research, I immediately go to the end user or the customer, but it feels like what you have found is a bigger leverage point is really being empathetic and inclusive with stakeholders because so many good things cascade from there. If you get that part right first.
Babz: [00:17:17] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think somebody mentioned this already, but people can either be a proponent or a blocker for research. Right. So people are either going to support me or be neutral or they're going to actively block my work. And it is really not in my interests to have people who mistrust me.
Right. So it is ground zero. I mean, I've been at Variant for like, I think three or four months, and I've spent the majority of my time just getting to know people, right? To get people out of these defensive places to understand that research can help them be successful.
Erin: [00:17:50] Yeah, absolutely. I lead our growth team here at User Interviews and I'm a big proponent of research as a huge growth driver, which yeah, absolutely. You talked a little bit ago about radical listening and I would like to hear more about what that is.
Babz: [00:18:07] Yeah. I hope that's not somebody else's term.
Erin: [00:18:09] Well, we'll look it up and give them
Babz: [00:18:11] okay. Yeah,
Erin: [00:18:12] there's radical. Everything now. Radical candor radical. I don't know. Yeah, but I, yeah. What does it mean to you? Anyhow?
Babz: [00:18:19] I think. If there's active listening, which is what as mentioned by Jor-El when he was speaking with humanity centered, covered, active listening is first of all, exhausting, but it involves really listening. It's not picking out the data points that you want to hear, or it's not listening to half the conversation.
It is listening to what people have to say, and then it's. Also considering people as experts in their own experiences. So this goes back to this dynamic of like, you know, of resistance when somebody who's built a solution, let's say a product manager or Whomever or even a designer, right? Like, I mean, even as a researcher, you can be in this position where you're like, I'm not wrong.
I'm correct. I know I'm right. Right. And if you get into this point of defensiveness, you're no longer listening. If you're not able to iterate and change your product or change the direction of your research based on what people are actually saying, you're not being empathetic. You're being very rigid, right?
And it's ultimately not benefiting anyone. It's just coming from this place of ego, right. Where you can't be wrong. And so if you enter this place, I have all these deliverables and I have very tight deadlines and you know, I have a team and like, if all of this anxiety really causes you to move away from a human centered practice, you're not listening.
So how do you listen? You listen to what your customers' lives are like. So if I'm designing a rewards program for truckers, I'm not just going to ask them about their work lives. I'm going to try to understand how important it is for them to be home on time to have social connection with their peers, with their friends that are not truckers, with their parents, and so on.
A person spends a lot of time working, right? So their work life is part of their life, but it's also for most of us, it's a majority of our lives too. And that's the same with products, like thinking of how many hours a day you use your phone. Right? Like if that thing weren't useful, it would be very frustrating.
I think radical listening is hearing what people have to say, even if it's outside of this script or discussion guide or product testing. So much rich data can come from the sort of offhand comments or conversations and you can be proven wrong over and over again. But that's excellent. Right? Cause you're getting closer towards a true reality that a customer is experiencing. I will say there are definitely examples where you would need to set boundaries. So like I'm not saying like deal with somebody who is abusive or toxic or like railing on you in a customer call.
Like. There are definitely moments to draw boundaries on listening to take some time away, especially for researchers. Right. And especially for folks working from home, maybe that's the only thing you're doing. I know that for me For a few months under quarantine, I was just working way too much because I had nothing else to do.
And I found myself really close to burnout. Right. So, I think listening, but also balancing that with self-care balances that with the kind of necessary emotional regulation, signing off you know, creating comfortable self care space for yourself. And then you can really have this energy to go there with somebody, to listen to them and to admit, you know, that if you are in a defensive state, moving away from that defensive state, by listening to what people have to say on their own terms and considering them experts in their own lived experiences.
Erin: [00:21:47] Yeah, so, so radical listening is not obsessive listening. It's not you know, toxic or dangerous to you, but what I hear you saying is it's like a kind of deep and deeply present listening where you're sort of as aware as you can be of like a what's on the surface, B what's below the surface and like, sort of C this larger context of where they're coming from.
And then obviously at the end of the day, it's, you know, how does that relate to whatever I'm trying to figure out, but that there are clues out there that are maybe more relevant that are. You know, outside of those direct answers to questions of what's explicitly said, that's why researchers talk about body language and things like that all the time.
Right. Is that kinda what you're
Babz: [00:22:36] Yeah. Yeah.
I think that's a fantastic summary. I think that, and like in a good example that recently came up at work, we were trying to understand the kinds of support and tools that our operations staff needs. So we have operations specialists at the company that deal with like, Basically anything that drivers need, right?
They're the person on the phone when drivers call in, if they need information, if they need support, if they need a hotel room for the night, if they need to reroute. Whatever operational issues come up, we have these operational specialists, right. Operations specialists. So, recently I was. I did a wave of work with our ops specialists to figure out what kind of tools and support they need to have better calls with drivers, right?
how can we improve our efficiency, but also, you know, our comfort making sure that everyone's needs are met from the driver's perspective when they call the operations specialists, when they pick up.
And I had stakeholders who were really concerned that we would have to build some very large tool for this, right. It would be a huge undertaking and is it really a priority? And I think that some folks were focused on the kinds of solutions that they would need to build. So by actively listening to ops specialists, it turns out they didn't need anything like that.
They didn't need some giant matrix or software or these tools that would be expensive and time consuming. They just needed the small area of support to be filled. They needed certain answers immediately. Like, and I the relief with my stakeholders, when I read that back to them earlier this week was palpable.
They're like, oh, wow, thanks. Goodness. Like it's actually a small thing that we can do, we can deliver immediately and improve everybody's lives. Right. So I wouldn't have gotten there, like our project wouldn't have gotten there if I was focused on the solutions of like, do you like this solution? And you're like the solution, like instead I listened and I was like, oh, they actually just need a small tweak in their experience.
And they need this level of autonomy to feel like they can get their jobs done and improve efficiency and wellbeing of everybody. So that only came from really going like off script so to say in those calls,
JH: [00:24:45] Yeah, there was something I read recently in Teresa Torres' new book Continuous Discovery habits. And there's just a sentence in there that really stuck with me. I think it's something along the lines of, you can learn to balance like action without like you can go in. With a really open mind and explore and dig deep and really listen actively, and then still periodically make decisions on what you're going to do next.
And like, there's, you know what I mean? There's a way to get that balance. Like you don't have to just be paralyzed and only be in learning mode forever. Right? Like there's a way to just to integrate that feedback and you know, be really open-minded and continue to listen to customers in a very authentic way, but still determine plans and say like, Hey, for the next week, we're going to build this.
Or, you know, for the next month we're going to focus here. And those things don't have to be opposed to each other either.
Erin: [00:25:23] Um, when you are listening and you know, sort of taking the qualitative data in and you know, like what's my followup question going to be, right. Are you processing as it's happening?
Or are you sort of like putting that in a parking lot for later? Right? Like my job now is to just like, get good data and I'm going to get that by paying attention and asking relevant follow ups, or I guess you have to process obviously somewhat to be able to ask relevant, follow up questions. Right. But like, are you kind of, you know, saving that analysis phase for later?
Or do you like doing it as you go?
Babz: [00:26:03] That's an excellent question. And I'm sure that differs from researcher to researcher, but my habits around listening and around note-taking is basically taking, I have these little gel pens at my desk. And I color code a conversation As I'm taking the notes. I will circle things. I use shorthand I kind of oddly, so I've had a few different lines of work and years ago, I actually used to tutor Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany.
Erin: [00:26:36] As you do.
Babz: [00:26:40] Yeah.
So the reason that I bring this up is that I worked once with a man who was an interpreter. So he was trying. Trilingual is that a thing? He has like three languages. Right? And so we were working on his English interpretation so he could translate it into Russian, but part of that so I would read to him for 10 minutes and he would take notes, like furious note taking and shorthand, and then he would be able to almost verbatim tell me what I had said.
And in the course of five or 10 minutes of listening, which is a lot of content. So I realized that, and that note taking was critical. Right. And I started developing note-taking strategies of my own. And I think note taking does two things for me. It. Imprints the information into my physical body so that I can go back through the motions when I'm reading and like, oh, I, you know, I was scribbling here.
I'm at this point in the conversation, I like connecting my listening to like, like haptic feedback through drawing or through writing. It also allows me to highlight interesting points or relevant points. In the tax, I go through loads of notebooks, get these like very basic plain notebooks and I scribble and I pretty much look at them one time.
And I take notes so that I can talk to stakeholders afterwards. I like to regroup and say, Hey, I found these three things in this call or were standing out to me as far as they might answer business strategy questions, or product design questions, or, wow. I've never heard of any of this.
Maybe we need to completely go back to the drawing board of what we think we understand about this problem space. I think having some physical and engagement is critical for remembering and for actively listening for me. This is also where I differ from what I was taught in academia.
So in academia when I got my ethnography degree, you would code every single word. Right. And then from that, you could pull out this like grounded theory, which is, you know, a popular example of grounded theory is actually Brene Brown. She works with grounded theory. She does a lot of interviews and then she will code them and pull out themes based on that.
I don't always have time to do that, honestly. That's been one of my biggest adjustments moving from my sociology master's to this place of very fast, deliberate deliverables, agile frameworks. What have you, you know, pressing business objectives? So I try to do analysis by writing and then also by organically following a conversation.
So I very rarely stick to any sort of. Outline of a conversation that I had preconceived because I'm usually not correct. Right. Like I think that if you can predict a. A script. So to say, or a discussion guide, like verbatim questions, you probably know too much or you're wrong. Like, and I usually enter conversations where I know nothing and I have no preconceived notions of what I'm going to learn because that's the point of learning.
So I will always ask follow up questions. I will always take active notes and then I will usually reiterate themes that come up during a conversation, I will restate like, Hey, I'm hearing these three things. Did I get this correct? I always like to ask for feedback with the interview subject as I go.
Erin: [00:29:54] Love it. Yeah. I think the, you know, you talk about, you know, inclusion as empathy and practice, and I think, and you also talked about UX research as like academic research and practice. And so sometimes. Work in practice means not taking shortcuts, right. But being realistic about, you know, how the method is going to be most effective in real life.
So it's always cool to hear examples of adapting kind of rigorous time-consuming expensive methods to a business context, Babz. Thanks for joining us today. This has been amazing and awesome. Any final thoughts you want to share?
Babz: [00:30:34] No, this is great. I appreciate, you know—be a little meta—like, I appreciate the organic nature of this conversation. I always love talking about methods and then I think specifically our conversation on inclusive research techniques, like that's my jam. So I'm really hoping that folks find some inspiration from our conversation today.
VP, Growth & Marketing
Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.