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The Art (and Importance) of Building Rapport

Connecting with our users not only opens them up for more discussion, it makes them feel safe, secure, and ready to be vulnerable.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Rapport building is a crucial—but understated—part of life.

It increases our chances of getting that job from a hiring manager. It helps us turn strangers into friends or loved ones. It’s an artform mastered by politicians, celebrities, and influencers alike to win hearts and minds.

And, as researchers, it’s an indispensable tool to help our users feel as comfortable and safe as possible.

But building rapport and establishing trust is not as easy as chattering about the day’s weather or mindlessly asking shallow questions (“What do you do for a living?”). It’s a skill, and it’s one that Eniola Abioye believes is critical for truly understanding your user.

As the Senior UX Design Researcher at Silicon Valley Bank, she’s honed her own rapport building skills speaking to founders and innovators of all stripes. She knows that it’s not just a good way to get users to open up. It also gives UXRs more opportunities to create more inclusive and accessible products and services.

That’s why she’s gave a talk at the 2021 UXR Conference about just that. We sat down with Eniola to talk about her career and background, as well as her best advice to build rapport with our users.

Editor's note: Since this article's original publish date in 2021, Eniola has become a UX Researcher at Meta and is the Founder and Career Coach of UX Outloud.

dscout: How did you first become interested in UXR?

Eniola Abioye: I have always been a bit of a science nerd. I studied integrative biology at UC Berkeley. I've also always been a very extroverted, people person. I get my energy when I'm around people. So I figured, “Okay. I like people; I like science. So I'll be a doctor.” Then I got to school and swiftly realized that being a doctor is not for me.

My first job out of school was at a marketing and user research firm in the pharma and biotech space. So I was talking to a lot of patients, doctors, and caregivers.

Then I moved on to Kaiser Permanente and I was doing UX research, design thinking, and human-centered design. I loved it. This is what I’m meant to do. I love talking to people and genuinely care about what they have to say. So it just makes a lot of sense to be talking to people about things they care about and about things that aren't always easy to talk about.

How did you end up going from healthcare to fintech with Silicon Valley Bank?

So my introduction to UX and research was in this [biotech] space—which could be a heavy space to research in. We explore a lot of sensitive topics. People ask about my switching from pharma to finance, and a lot of that experience actually carries over. Money can be a vulnerable thing to talk about, too.

Also, I knew I wanted to go somewhere that was really innovative, and where the research that I was doing mattered and impacted innovation. And fintech just kept coming up. Those were the companies that I was most interested in, and it's who I was talking to.

When I think about speaking to founders about their money and shaping their business early on, I'm super excited about it. You're talking to the people who are going to be shaping what the world looks like in the next few years; I want to drive innovation for them.

Did anything surprise you about working in this new space?

This wasn't a surprise, but something that ties them together is the fact that people resonate with relationships. People look to build rapport with the companies that they work with or the products or services they're interacting with, because people don't use products in silos.

And it's not just about the product, it's about everything around it. Safety and the relationship matters. Do they know my name? Am I talking to the same person often and having a relationship with that person? Or am I speaking to someone else every time I call? Is it just a generic type of experience?

Research is not just about doing interviews or getting really deep into the methodology. It's about listening to people.

Eniola Abioye

Speaking of rapport, you gave a talk at the UXR Conference about rapport building. Why did you choose that topic? What gets you excited about it?

As someone who came into this space from the pathway that I did, I recognize that it's not just important to build rapport when you're talking about healthcare. Something I've learned over time is that people are just people. We need to build relationships in order to talk about real stuff in every industry.

I assume there would be points of contention or points of having to really hold space for someone in any industry. I didn't come into the space talking about a consumer product; I was people talking about their lives.

When I look back on my work in UX and why I'm in it, it's because I enjoy holding space for people. So I want to make sure that other researchers coming in know that's part of the game. That's part of what's expected. Research is not just about doing interviews or getting really deep into the methodology. It's about listening to people.

When I think about my role in a company, I think about how we're some of the people who are at the front lines. We're hearing from our users about things that don't gel with them. There's been a lot of talk about inclusivity and how to be the most inclusive possible. That includes listening to people about what they need and where the company is falling short.

So researchers need to be bold and ask those real questions. And then also on the backend, what do we do with that information? It's our responsibility to take it back to our product teams and our design teams and make sure that the feelings that were expressed by users, are in those rooms.

We're now representatives for our users. We have to make sure that we're in those product design meetings, and we're in those demos talking about the sentiments that we've heard. It's not just about the features or colors that show up on a website. It’s about the things that we don't think about because there's only a certain number of us in the room.

How accessible is our product? How do people want to digest their information? Are we missing something because we just don't think about it? Is this not accessible to someone who's neurodivergent in some way? Are folks color blind and can't tell the difference between the different areas on our website? How is that impacting their experience?

So there's just all these things no one person has the answer to because you need to hear from a plethora of different people.

I’d imagine it’s hard to get your user to be vulnerable, especially when it comes to these heavier topics. How do you establish rapport then?

In the beginning, we set the tone. [For example,] we built some rapport in this conversation. We got on, and we talked a little bit about how we're living. It wasn’t just you asking me some questions and I giving you answers. It’s building that human touch. It’s things that are outside of kind of the basic norm, “Man, it's really sunny outside today!” I’m a person outside of a researcher, just like you. So it’s important to establish that.

It's so funny. There's often this power dynamic between researcher and respondent. And folks come on and they're like, “Hi, thanks for picking me. I hope what I have to say is important to you or valuable to you. I want to help you all as much as possible.” And as a researcher I’m so happy that they're here. I want to hear what they have to say and make sure that I'm doing my due diligence as a researcher. So balancing out that power dynamic is super important to do at the beginning. We set that tone.

And I always smile and try to be as warm as I can and laugh things off so that people don't think we're rigid and, “They’re recording. So I have to say things perfectly.” No, I just want to hear from you. Even if I have my questions but you are going off on a rant, that's obviously what's important to you. So let me hear that.

It’s also important to sense where there might be tension in the conversation and just address them in the beginning. So folks can take a deep breath and just come into the conversation as they are.

What are some mistakes that you think people often make when it comes to this?

I think people jump right into questions sometimes. I've also seen researchers try to take notes during interviews and that's such a no to me.

We have the technology to avoid that. We record sessions and can transcribe them later. There's too much technology out there to have to sit there and take notes and have the respondent watch you as you take notes. It disrupts the connection you're making.

I want to be talking to you and you talking to me, not you talking to the top of my head as I write down the things that you say.

Let's get out of the respondent and researcher mentality—and let's just have a conversation.

Eniola Abioye

You want to avoid observing and focus on just being present with the user.

Exactly. You're disrupting the human touch—why we do people research with a human person on this end. Because if there didn't need to be a person on my end, then you could talk to a recording.

For some topics we do that. But the point of me spending time with this person is to really get into a conversation—a back and forth.

How do you turn the insights that you learn from this rapport building into advocacy for the user?

I probe a lot and try to get deeper into what's behind the things that people say. Then I distill them down as much as possible. And so the research readout is great, but also beyond the readout, what happens next?

I talk to folks at every turn that I have, whether it's project work or my research team, or it's designers and team meetings. Any big shift in a company is going to take some time especially when you're talking about inclusivity. When you’re at a big company with lots of people, big shifts are going to take a lot of buy-in. So it's gathering this buy-in, speaking to it, and establishing the trends when they're there.

We need to really pay attention and explore how we can shift. And sometimes it's not a shift, sometimes it's good feedback. But when there is, it's especially important to constantly be that voice.

An example is when we think about the forms that we have. Whenever I see a form that asks, “What's your gender?” but they provide options that are not genders, I always feel the need to speak up and say, "Hey, either these aren't including all of the options that it should, or this wording is wrong and let's be a little bit more clear so that we're not making anyone feel left out."

At the risk of sounding ignorant, what does rapport mean exactly to you?

When I think about rapport, I mean a human connection. We’re establishing that we are having a conversation as people first.

Let's get out of the respondent and researcher mentality. And let's just have a conversation. The quicker you get people comfortable to talk, the sooner they'll just actually talk. I've been in interviews where they kind of just answer a question and are ready for the next. And encourage respondents to tell me the things that they think about. Tell me how this product impacts their life.”

If I were to talk to a fisherman, I'd start out by asking something like, “Tell me about your boat. Tell me about why you got into fishing.”

Remind them that you're a person as well as a researcher and that you're ultimately just trying to hear part of their story. You’re not looking for particular answers or checking any boxes. No, it's just a conversation and we want to get respondents there so that they're not kind of giving us feedback that they think we want.

I'd say the last thing is that people ultimately like talking about what they're passionate about. See if you can figure out what they're passionate about or guess based on what they do or the context that you're talking to them in. And invite that piece of them into the room or into the conversation, I think you'll have a much better time building rapport.

What are some good ways to do that? How do you find those ways to connect the research with the things that they're passionate about?

One way is to always just ask a kind of a warm up question. I get to talk to founders, and a lot of founders are passionate about the business that they're building.

So just asking them, why is this important or why did you feel the need to kind of build something from the ground up? And people get into it, because it puts a mirror on them and asks them to think through the things that they take for granted. People like when you want to hear their stories and want to listen. It's flattering.

When I was at Kaiser and I was working with doctors and quality execs. There was someone who had done a lot of research around sepsis. So, not something that's super exciting. It's actually quite scary, but he had done a lot of research around it.

The fact that he got to talk and socialize it with people and see them come to an understanding of what it was, was exciting for him. Spreading awareness was part of his work. Giving him a chance to just talk to me about it, why it was important, and how he got into that research made him much more talkative. There was much more back and forth happening.

I learned a lot and you could see his wall come down because he was able to talk about what was important to him.

What's a question you wish everyone would ask you?

I wish people in general would ask me, “How can I show up for you today?” more.

I love that.

It applies in the research, but just also in life. “How can I listen to you today?” or, “How can I show up?” or “What do you hope to gain from this conversation?”

Let me not assume how I can show up in a good way for you. Let me just ask. And then in life whether it's friends or you're working with someone, “how can I show up for you today” is just a broad way of saying “Let’s design our experience together.”

Well, Eniola. How can I show up for you today?

Earlier in the week if you asked me, I would have asked for you to remind me to take breaks. And then if you were to ask me now I'd ask you to remind me to celebrate small wins.

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Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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