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UX research is emotionally taxing work. Here's how to take better care of yourself.
When Vivianne first started getting involved in UX, she was beyond excited to attend her first conference. She had come from a background in counseling and psychology, so she was excited to meet other UXers and hear executives talk about how human-centered design works at their businesses. But once she got to the conference, she found that she had a different definition of what it meant to be human-centered from many of the people she met.
I remember at the end of that conference sitting in my chair and being like, "Wow, we have very different understanding of what it means to be human-centered." And in many ways I was like, "Wow, this is all BS, how we talk about these things."
I've noticed and have talked to UX professionals who are sharing how they're exhausted. They're sharing about how they're having these flashbacks of conversations, difficult conversations that have occurred, and in many ways they're starting to share these symptoms that, for me, I'm like, ‘Wow, this is compassion fatigue.’ Or talking to people who work with marginalized groups a lot and hearing, ‘Wow, they're experiencing vicarious trauma.’ We talk a lot about caring for other people, advocating for other people, but our industry is missing the other side of the coin, which is about caring for ourselves and knowing how to advocate for ourselves and our needs as well.
In the world of counseling, there’s mandatory training to recognize things like compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Though UX is an inherently human-centered disciple, Vivanne has seen that there aren’t the same checks and balances to ensure UXers are taking care of themselves. The emotional and psychological impact of doing work that’s emotionally taxing isn’t taken into account. Vivanne sees this in the training UXers receive, the conversations that are happening around UX, and the way leaders in the field handle this part of the work.
For human service professionals, this is something that's talked about basically day one of your training. You're taught to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? How is your job impacting your personal and professional life? You're taught to recognize some of these symptoms, some of these emotions that are coming up within your work.
You're encouraged to take time and step away, take care of yourself if you need it. Whereas in our industry, that's something that is not necessarily taught, not only within school and the curriculum that we teach people in this field, but even in regards to content that leaders and other professionals are putting out into the world.
These emotional and psychological demands are inherently a part of UX work, but they are not taught in the same way research practices or design tools are. This leads UXers to feel as if the emotional and psychological fatigue symptoms they experience aren’t as important or as work-related as they are.
Since Vivianne has become the person people come to with their stories about symptoms like compassion fatigue and trauma, she’s heard from a lot of people about how these things actually affect them at work. She’s heard from many people that they didn’t know that they were experiencing those things, and putting a name and a cause to their experiences has been helpful in moving forward.
In fact, Vivianne gave an entire talk about how UX Researchers are neglecting their own needs, in order to serve others. But ignoring your needs doesn’t actually help you do your job better. It can make you less productive and fulfilled, and suffering in silence makes it harder for you to actually help users.
Vivianne talked to us about three ways she’s found to make self-care for UX researchers a priority. She outlined what researchers can do to take care of themselves at work, as well as how they can encourage change within their organizations.
Taking the time to check in with yourself and look for signs that you may need to take a step back is critical to doing good human-centered work.
Vivianne says the two main things she sees in UX Researchers are compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Of course, there are other things that can occur, and everyone’s working situation is different, so checking in with yourself for anything that’s out of the ordinary is important.
I think there's ways for us to suss it out for ourselves. A part of it is...some of these initial symptoms. I think about things like feeling anxious or having difficulty sleeping or feelings of self-contempt, weight loss, headaches, significant decrease in job satisfaction, things like that. I think what makes it hard for people to assess themselves is the fact that they don't even know that it's something that they should assess themselves on a somewhat regular basis.
So if you find yourself feeling more anxious than usual, it may be a sign that there’s something like compassion fatigue going on. Take the time to check in with yourself regularly so you can better monitor the symptoms and take action before you start feeling too burned out.
Saying “I’m going to check in with myself more” is great and all, but how do you actually do that? Vivianne offered us some good tips from her own experience that have helped her establish a check-in system she can stick to.
Vivianne likes to designate one or two people in her personal and professional life to be her mirror. These people can help hold her accountable to her own goals for self-care and serve as an outside set of eyes to see if something’s not quite right.
I always talk to people about how important it is to have those one or two people, either in your professional space or your personal space, that you know you can always be 100% vulnerable and honest with, with what's going on in your work and what's going on in your personal life. I personally have those people, and I've talked to them about, ‘Hey, if there's a blind spot that's happening even as I'm talking about work, as you're hearing how often am I talking about work in our conversations, please let me know, please help me see things and hold me accountable.’
These people aren’t responsible for doing your self care for you, but they can be immensely helpful in keeping you aware of how your work may be affecting you. They can serve as the canaries in the coal mine to help point things out to you before it’s too late. If you can be honest and vulnerable with them about what you need to be on the lookout for, they can help you establish better practices and habits.
Establishing these designated people can also help you normalize the idea that there may be things at work that are emotionally and psychologically taxing. Talking with a friend about these stressors, and asking them to help you keep an eye out, can help you get out of the “I’m not doing a good job” train of thought and onto the “I need to take care of myself so I can do a good job” one.
Vivianne takes inventory of how she feels before and after each interview or workshop. She takes note of how she feels that day, what she may be bringing into a session, and how that affects not only how she conducts the session, but how that session may affect her after everything’s said and done. Writing it all down helps make it concrete, and harder to dispute when you’re looking back and remembering the session or how you felt.
If I'm doing an interview or if I'm about to do a workshop, I take an inventory before and after. So I'll write on a piece of paper and I'll ask myself things like, how am I feeling today? What are the things that I'm bringing into this session? What are things that may have happened this morning? What are arguments or maybe difficulties that have happened that I might be bringing into this? What are the assumptions and potential biases I already have against this stakeholder, against this end user? And how could that impact the way that I'm understanding and interpreting this information?
I'll write that down on a piece of paper. And part of the reason why I write it down is because, one, it draws my awareness to it. And so I'm able to mitigate myself a little bit more when I'm in that interview or workshop. But two, it's taking it off of my mind. It's releasing it a little bit from any tension that it might be causing me. And then after those workshops and those interviews, I, again, do a debrief. Was there anything that happened that I felt like emotionally stirred me up in any way, whether positively or negatively? How do I think that impacted the way I was relating and talking to that stakeholder and to that person? What potential assumptions or biases that I feel like were surfacing up when they said A, B, or C? How am I feeling now as to before I entered into that interview, into that workshop?
And then what I often do is I'll look at both of those, I'll see what was similar, what changed, and just make mental notes around, what are the things I need to keep in mind as I'm combing through my notes, as I'm thinking about insights that I'm surfacing, that can not only potentially be biased but could also be something that I might be carrying with me after my nine to five ends? And so I think those self check-ins and just being able to write that and document that is another light and easy way for people to check in with themselves.
Vivianne also recommends taking inventory of your job as a whole. This can help you see the impact of things like compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma earlier. It can also help you see how those things may be affecting your performance at work and your mental health.
Keeping a journal can help you take inventory on a more regular basis. Whether it’s a daily entry about how you’re feeling that day, or sitting down with a prompt once a week, keeping a journal of how you’re feeling gives you space to check in.
Here’s four journaling prompts from her article on what UXers should be doing for self-care.
You know when you’re on a flight and the flight attendants remind you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others? It’s because, if you’re an adult with a young child and the oxygen masks come down, you need to put yours on so you can be there to put the child’s on as well. If you try to put the child’s on first, you may not succeed and you may not be able to put your own on, leaving both you and the child without oxygen.
That’s what you need to do for yourself when it comes to research. Put your mask on first. You won’t be able to be the advocate you want to be for your users without taking care of yourself first.
So how can you put your mask on first? A part of it is taking the time to check in with yourself, but there are some other things you can do to take better care of yourself so you can take better care of others.
Vivianne hears from a lot of UXers about the exhaustion they feel around communicating the value of their work to stakeholders. She recognized the impact this can have on the way UXers and researchers feel about their work, and advised them to give themselves permission to step back.
At some point, there’s only so much you can do to convince a stakeholder something is important, communicate the value of your work to a team, or learn about a certain research question. Knowing when enough is enough is a skill that takes time and compassion to develop, but it's worth the effort.
A part of it is knowing when good is good enough. I think sometimes, especially for us, we often feel like we have to carry this mantle of being the advocate and the champion. And I think sometimes we have to be able to step back and recognize there's only so much you might be able to communicate to a certain stakeholder, whether it's on that particular project or even within the scope of our time being at that company. And I think that's a hard thing to accept, because then in some ways it almost feels like you're giving up. It feels like, "Oh, maybe I'm not doing my job correctly." But I think what that does is it gives you permission to do a couple things.
It gives you permission to emotionally not be so invested. I think it gives you permission to try new ways of engaging that person or new angles of approaching that person that maybe don't seem as taxing as other proposed ways that we often talk about within the community. And I think it also gives you the language to understand what's happening within you and how to communicate that to your manager, if you are having difficulty or you need their support or advice dealing with a particular stakeholder. And I think that is something that ends up benefiting you as a professional in how you advance in your career.
Vivanne has heard a lot of horror stories about research sessions gone wrong. They range from mildly uncomfortable to entirely inappropriate, so she encourages researchers to set clear boundaries for themselves.
I remember someone shared with me a story about how they were interviewing a gentleman, and he just started just being almost overtly sexual with her, and was just being overly flirty and all these things. And she talked about how in that moment she felt like she needed to tell him to calm down and continue pushing on with the interview, because she only had a certain amount of interviewees set up and participants and all these things. And she talked about how eventually she just had to say, "Sorry, excuse me sir, but we just can't continue this interview any more. This is not helpful," and just had to walk away. And she talked about how she's experienced things like that before. But there was something in that moment where she's like, "I just had to give myself permission that getting this interview checked off the box is not worth my safety, not worth my emotional sanity, all these things."
And honestly, I don't hear a lot of stories from people who do reach out who do that. I've had stories where people are being triggered from something someone said, and it's triggering them to maybe a difficult childhood memory or triggering trauma within them. But they just sit there, endure, because this is the job. "I have to be in the midst of all of the messiness and beauty of humanity. I have to just be here and I'll sort it out later." So I just encourage people, if you need to step away or if you need to reschedule interviews on a certain day because emotionally, mentally you are not fully there, you're incredibly distraught, take that time and space to do.
While situations like the overtly-sexual participant are rare, it’s not rare for researchers to feel emotionally or mentally overwhelmed by the process of research. Offering yourself an out if you’re not feeling psychologically safe isn’t being bad at your job, it’s putting on your oxygen mask so you can be better in the next session.
Taking inventory and checking in with yourself can help you better understand where you are, which can help you create a research schedule that works better for you. We’ve found that there are also a few things you can do to create a less hectic research session schedule:
Of course, the most important thing of all is to be honest with yourself and do what works for you. If you find having all your sessions in one day to be less draining than spreading them out, by all means, go for it. What’s important is that you advocate for a schedule that works for you.
Since all of this self-care happens in the context of work, it’s important to also look at what we can do within teams that encourages better practices. Not all organizations are willing to adopt practices that help researchers and UXers advocate for themselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to implement things like this on the team level and for ourselves.
At Salesforce, Vivianne works in the Office of Innovation, which has something called an Alliance to help teams care for themselves. She walked us through how the process works and how its helped her:
In many ways what I'm proposing is, what could it look like for us to create a subculture within the culture of the organizations and companies that we work in? I work at Salesforce in the office of innovation, and something that we do is, before we start projects, we actually have a coach that's on staff with us, and we do something called an Alliance.
You're with your team and you're talking about, "This is how I understand what's expected of me for this project." We talk about, "If you're going to work well with me, you need to understand that I like down time," or, "I need to leave at 4:00 to pick up my kid," or whatever it is. We talk about what are concerns or fears we have about this project." And it's an opportunity to share about, "Is there anything personally that we should be aware of that we could support each other in, boundaries that we want to try and keep up?"
As a team, what do we want to commit to doing to make sure not only that this project is successful, but that we're caring for each other and ourselves in the midst of this? That's a very unique thing.
Being upfront with your teammates about what your needs and expectations are is something we can all be better at, alliance or not. If your team is up for it, try to set aside some time at the beginning of each project to brief each other on what your needs and expectations are, both project-related and personal. Talking about these expectations, even if it’s only for a few minutes, can lead to better team relationships and better work.
Vivianne also advises making use of HR professionals and team managers to create better psychological safety among teams.
When we're on different projects, you might be working with different people. So the alliances look different for every project that is going on within the org. But I think something that has helped is the fact that we do have a coach who is on staff within our org. And so if there's someone who maybe doesn't feel as comfortable, or maybe they're having issues, oftentimes we'll have one-on-ones with that coach, we'll talk about, how do you mitigate that? How do you still feel like you can express yourself even if you maybe don't feel fully psychologically safe with the group because person A, B, or C is there? And that coach often works with us on, how do you mitigate that? How do you still create that space for yourself? How do you advocate for yourself?
Obviously I recognize that not every org or every team can have a coach and can do that. But I do think something that we can take away from that is, and even for managers, is, managers, what would it look like for you to be that person? To help your direct reports navigate a conflict or navigate feelings of, "I don't know if I can fully be honest or straightforward with a colleague"? And I think it's just another hat that the managers, I think, should wrestle through and figure out how to wear it.
If managers can work to help create psychological safety for their reports, and teams can work towards speaking more frankly about their expectations and needs, hopefully we can move towards a world with more sustainable research.
Vivianne Castillo is a Senior Design Researcher and Innovation Consultant at Salesforce. She has over 7 years of experience in UX research and design, with a background in trauma counseling. She advocates for more ethical research practices, including self-care for UX researchers.
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.