The art of empathic disengagement

Posted By David Heacock on Mar 13, 2017 | 0 comments


As User Experience professionals our core personality trait is the ability to empathise with others. Unfortunately, this can often get in the way of doing our jobs effectively.

Recently, I have been coaching colleagues on the technique I call empathic disengagement – the ability to empathise with a research subject without responding to their pain.

Let’s set up a scenario to help illuminate the topic. This week I performed usability evaluations for a government online form in a team of three researchers. We took turns in facilitating research participants to work their way through the lengthy form. Every few minutes the research participants got stuck on something and would look to the researcher for assistance.

Often, when performing usability studies, junior researchers and UX designers will be told: “don’t coach the subject!”. On one level this is a very simplistic instruction and should be easy to follow, just shut up and let the user perform the task. But in reality, a person who is tuned to feel will find it very difficult to turn off their feelings of empathy for another person. You are seen by the research participant as the person who knows what they are supposed to do, you have the answers and they look to you when they get stuck.

“So I click this button to continue, right?”, “I’m so lost… I can’t work it out…”, “What am I doing wrong?”, “I feel stupid…”. It’s hard not to react to their pain and just gently nudge them in the right direction to ease their suffering – so unless we are psychopaths, this is a normal human reaction.

How to disengage

The key lies in being able to be in two states at once.

Imagine you are a doctor: you can tell your patient to quit smoking for decades, but if they don’t listen and die, it’s not really something you can get upset about – you need enough empathy to help them stop, but not become so attached that it damages you when they don’t.

There are two activities I enjoy that have parallels with empathic disengagement: yoga and motorcycling. In yoga, one attempts to clear the mind while compelling the body to gracefully perform stressful and physically demanding movements without breaking wind. When motorcycling, particularly on a race track, the aim is to keep the lower part of your body highly engaged and tense, while your head, neck shoulders and arms are like barely functional jelly and your mind is calm, methodical and unflappable when facing what appears to be certain death at every corner.

So how do we do this when performing usability evaluations? Start by telling participants that you are going to do it. “I’m not going to be your friend today, I won’t help you find answers and if you are lost and confused by anything I need to watch that.” Carefully monitor your responses and body language. Pick one type of neutral response, like “I see…” or “interesting…” and use it in every circumstance, positive or negative. The participant should feel alone and unsupported. You can feel their pain as they become confused by a user interface problem, but never let it show.

As a UX professional you are the ‘user advocate’, but this doesn’t always mean you have to be nice to them, and sometimes you have to make design decisions that they will not like but are good for them.