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How We Empathize in UX Matters

Social UX researcher Alba Villamil tells us how designers can better impact disadvantaged communities.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emma McKhann

It’s easy to view empathy in UX design as an abstraction.

For example, we might consider a user’s experience on a website or how they interact with an app. We take into account how they might be frustrated if a button is in the wrong place or if the layout is changed.

That’s all very important—but what if the user’s experience determines whether or not their child learns at school? Or when their experience means the difference between staying in the country and deportation? Or if it gives a marginalized community agency and autonomy over their own future?

It’s easy to look at a concept like empathy and say, “That’s what we should be doing!” But what does that really mean and look like in action?

These are the issues with which UX researcher Alba Villamil has grappled for years. Alba works as a consultant to social enterprises and community organizations in the social sector. There she believes that designers need to rethink their role in disadvantaged communities and the methods they use to research them.

“Research doesn't have to just be about gaining insights into a group of people,” Alba says. “It is a process that can be, I think, oriented towards justice and care.”

We took some time out of Alba’s busy day to discuss UX in the social sector, the importance of cutting out the middleman, and how designers and researchers can make empathy more than just a buzzword.

dscout: You have an extensive background in sociology research. How did you transition from academia to UX research?

Alba: My background is in the sociology of immigration and inequality and now I work a lot with immigrant and refugee organizations.

One of my first design projects was with a public elementary school that I had used as a research site for an academic project. The school approached me because they were concerned about low levels of classroom engagement among their immigrant Latino parents. So I worked with a group of parent liaisons and teachers to figure out why there was such a large disparity in parent engagement.

How did you go about realizing the solution to that?

I drew a lot from my sociology background. For me, one of the most interesting subfields in sociology is cultural sociology. Traditionally, we think of culture as a set of values that orient society. But in cultural sociology there has been a movement towards thinking about culture as the many ways people process and make sense of the world around them. Sociologists have developed several analytic devices to understand that sense-making.

One of those devices are frames, which are essentially lenses that filter how people interpret situations.

During our interviews with parents, we found that many Latino parents framed the concept of school differently than other parents. For them, the classroom was the domain of the teacher while the home was their domain. They didn’t engage in the classroom because doing so would be like challenging the teacher’s expertise and authority.

Because of that, we focused on designing solutions that played with those frames like creating a content strategy for parent-school communication that characterized parents as classroom co-leaders.

Research doesn’t have to just be about gaining insights into a group of people. It is a process that can be, I think, oriented towards justice and care.

Alba Villamil

It's really interesting how you were able to use that background that you had in sociology, draw on your insights about culture into this specific context.

Definitely! One of the unique strengths of sociology is its multilevel approach to studying the social world. The discipline is a goldmine of concepts and tools design researchers can use to model users’ behavior and the processes that enable or constrain those behaviors.

You were working on a project last year to help improve the safety of refugees and the immigrant experience. Could you describe that a little bit for me?

Unfortunately, the project ended early because of funding. But it was trying to address two major issues in the U.S. immigration system.

The first issue was how can we make the journey from Central America into Mexico and then across the U.S. border safer for asylum seekers? And the other issue was how can we make it easier for nonprofits working at the border to deliver their services?

Though it ended early, what lessons did you glean while you were able to be a part of this?

That the U.S. immigration system is a mess.

That seemed obvious, right?

It is really obvious. But it’s so difficult to recognize the extent of what is happening until you connect with people doing work on the ground and they share their frustrations with you.

To give an example: Border shelters are often the first stop for asylum seekers after they’ve passed their screening interview and they’ve been temporarily released from detention. Some shelters can see hundreds of people pass through in one day. These numbers combined with volunteer shortages means that asylum seekers face long wait times for not only basic needs like bathing and food but also critical legal tasks like contacting sponsors.

On top of that, to satisfy the conditions of their hearings, some asylum seekers must wear ankle monitors. They have to activate them, wear them, and charge them in a specific way.

But the directions on the ankle monitor are only written in English. And they’re written in technical language. Few asylum seekers from Central America speak English and the literacy rate is low. And although there are volunteers and officers in these shelters who speak Spanish, many asylum seekers only speak indigenous languages.

So people violate the conditions of their hearings because they don’t understand how to comply with a surveillance device. And that fast tracks their application to the bottom of the pile if it’s not thrown out completely.

That’s so tragic because it seems small and simple—but it also isn't though. If they can't understand the directions of their ankle monitors, their files get put to the bottom of the pile. That's hugely consequential to them. Such a small design decision like that does have this irrevocable impact on people's lives.

In tech, you still sometimes hear, “Oh, design doesn't matter.” But it does. Our government designed immigration policy that terrorizes with an instruction label.

We need to self-reflect on the assumptions we use to define problems and interpret behavior.

Alba Villamil

What can design teams do to make sure that these marginalized groups without othering or stereotyping?

As humans, we're hardwired to be biased. It’s a survival mechanism that allows us to process a lot of information very quickly.

However, as researchers in the social sector, we need to be really careful about biases like out-group homogeneity bias and the fundamental attribution error. When we do research in multicultural settings or with disadvantaged populations, these biases can limit our ability to identify important intra-group differences and relevant contextual factors.

That’s why homogeneity in the design industry is such a problem. It makes us more susceptible to these biases.

How can teams confront these issues?

We need to self-reflect on the assumptions we use to define problems and interpret behavior.

One area where I sometimes see these biases is in poorly designed behavioral change projects that target financially vulnerable populations. Problem statements like “how can we encourage low income families to save more money?” or “cook healthier food?” implicitly frame design projects around individual failure. People who live under the poverty line don’t save money because they lack financial planning skills. Low income parents buy their children unhealthy food because they don’t understand nutrition. And then the design team creates educational training or an app that nudges users towards those “healthier” behaviors.

The issue with these narratives is that they downplay the systemic barriers that low income people face. And they also disregard people’s strategic decision-making. Individuals might not save because they’re paying off debt. Parents might knowingly buy unhealthy food because they can’t waste money on healthier food they can’t guarantee their child will eat. These people are being very strategic with their money but their strategies don’t match the expectations of the more privileged designers designing for them.

There’s so much power in these disadvantaged communities. There’s ingenuity, strength, love. You will never find any outside designers who could be more knowledgeable or passionate about solving the problems in these spaces.

Alba Villamil

You once said in an interview that “empathy is not enough” when it comes to the social sector. What did you mean by that?

There are limitations with the research methods and design activities we use in the field.

One of the cornerstones of any good qualitative research is cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand another person's situation through their own perspective. In design, we use tools like personas and empathy maps to facilitate that perspective-taking.

But problems in the social sector are complex. Although our users are experts in their personal user journey, they don’t necessarily know why the barriers they face exist. That’s why it’s so important that we reference subject matter experts like community advocates, journalists, and scholars throughout the design process. They provide an invaluable systems-level view of the silent actors and processes that shape users’ experiences.

Where do you see the future of design within the social sector going in the future? Or more pointedly, where do you think it needs to go?

I've noticed that design teams in the social sector are moving away from product design and moving towards service design. I think the next big shift is going to be from service design to policy design.

But the question will be, as always, who gets to frame the policy problem and whose expertise is weighted in the design of the solution?

That’s why I want design in the social sector to move towards what I like to think of as community-driven and justice-oriented design. As researchers, we should support community autonomy and capacity building.

What would that look like?

Let’s take informed consent, which is one of the foundations of European-American research ethics. Researchers must disclose enough information to potential participants so that they feel comfortable about joining a study.

Design teams often ask “how can we increase user trust and gain access?” But I think the more important question is “why should users trust us and grant access?” By default we assume our presence in disadvantaged communities is necessary.

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of anthropologist Kim TallBear who studies how indigenous communities exercise power and self-determination by refusing to participate in research.

So it got me thinking: what if in our interactions with communities we reframe consent as something they can strategically withhold rather than something they sign away?

In practice, this could take many forms. We could draft granular consent forms. We could design data repositories where research participants could delete their data ad hoc. We could work with community leaders and host townhalls about consent and data privacy. We could even develop accountability boards.

And what does it mean to build capacity?

Unfortunately, many organizations in the social sector follow a certain model.

As Syrian activist and writer Marcelle Shehwaro says, the social sector revolves around “donor friendly projects.” Nonprofits seek funding, deliver fundable interventions, and demonstrate social impact as they seek more funding. In this system, end-users from the community are “beneficiaries,” “collaborators,” and maybe even “implementing partners,” but they’re not the project drivers. Donors dictate which problems become design projects while outside design teams facilitate and run those projects.

The funding structure will always be an issue but we can still mentor and sponsor community members so they can lead their own initiatives.

I want to see outsider design researchers like me stop existing.

That’s a big tenet in the world of activism and social change: it’s the community organizers role to organize themselves out of their position. The idea at the end of the day, is that the community should be the one driving itself.


And the thing is there’s so much power in these disadvantaged communities. There’s ingenuity, strength, love. You will never find any outside designers who could be more knowledgeable or passionate about solving the problems in these spaces. There’s nothing comparable to that energy.

Community members like activists and advocates already have a human-centric approach to their work. What they might not have is solid research experience. Or product management experience. Or the language to talk with donors and policy makers.

Those skills are coachable.

We’re not necessary for the survival and healing of these communities. They are.

Interested in reading more about ethical research practices? Check out...

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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