Too often UXRs ignore the feelings of the most important person in their research process: themselves.
When your role is to dig deep into your users’ emotions and thoughts—often by asking tough questions and getting back even tougher answers—it’s easy to be blinded to how the work impacts you.
This results in what Vivianne Castillo, Founder of HmntyCntrd, Vivianne Castillo on avoiding burnout and re-evaluating UX’s favorite buzzword: empathy., calls “compassion fatigue” and “vicarious trauma.” The two phrases describe the emotional and physical impact of being too close to your users’ pain points and problems.
When that happens, researchers burn out‚ causing a ripple of negativity that spreads to their team, workplace, and users like a virus.
That’s why Vivianne thinks we should all pay more attention to self-care.
With a background in psychology and counseling, she knows all too well the negative effects user research can have on the researcher. And she’s become a champion of redefining empathy in the workplace.
“Hearing about people having panic attacks, burning out, and leaving the field made me realize that leaders in our industry aren’t really talking about mental health,” Vivianne says. “So I started to talk about it.”
We caught up with Vivianne to discuss how researchers can approach self-care, how the field should approach inclusion, and what her own self-care regiment looks like.
dscout: During your talk at 2019 Strive, you introduced the concepts of “compassion fatigue” and “vicarious trauma” within UX. What does it look like when those occur?
Vivianne: One thing that's important to remember is that compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma is experienced by people for whom extending empathy is part of their role and responsibility. That’s why we see it happen so often with researchers.
And there are various symptoms that come with that: anger, irritability, isolating yourself, overeating, and unhealthy routines—like grabbing drinks after work every single day.
This has an effect on your performance as well. I've heard stories of researchers who comb through and try to synthesize their data during a project, and because they're tired or burnt out, they aren't aware of where they are emotionally. They begin to take shortcuts.
They'll loosely draw insights from quotes that aren't really supportive, or instead of synthesizing all the research that they have, they'll work two-thirds of the way through.
It’s also common for people to start blowing off team meetings or opting to do more work by themselves. So projects become less collaborative.
Hearing about people having panic attacks, burning out, and leaving the field made me realize that leaders in our industry weren’t really talking about mental health—so I started to talk about it. I kept thinking, “Why do people not recognize what is happening?”
What are some concrete steps a researcher can take to avoid burning out from their work?
It’s all about boundaries and vulnerability. We talk a lot about being creative and innovative, but it's really hard to do that without knowing how to be vulnerable.
So even when you just feel overwhelmed, you can limit the impact of compassion fatigue if you’re able to articulate that to your manager, or able to ask your teammates for help.
Creating boundaries for when you talk about work outside of work—and when you don't—can also help. And having established rituals, like listening to a playlist you really enjoy on your commute home. That signals to your body and brain that it’s time to rest and set work aside.
What do you do for self-care?
I try not to only have friends that I work with and I try to not hang out with my colleagues all the time outside of work. I can't always be talking about design and research.
Also on Mondays and Tuesdays, I don't schedule anything after work. I don't hang out with friends. I don't go to work parties. Instead, I’m making myself dinner, or I'm taking myself out to the movies. I call it "Viv Time"; I like having space for me to breathe and think.
What got you interested in speaking out about this?
When I first entered this industry after leaving counseling and human services, I went to a design conference in San Francisco. I remember being excited to go because I had been reading all these books and articles around empathy and how big of a deal it is in our industry.
At the conference, I heard people speak about empathy, diversity, and inclusion and I remember just sitting there and thinking, “Wow, this is bullshit.” It was such a truncated understanding of what it means to be human-centered and empathic.
Hearing about people having panic attacks, burning out, and leaving the field made me realize that leaders in our industry weren't really talking about mental health—so I started to talk about it. I kept thinking, “Why do people not recognize what is happening?”
I think it's important for us to remember that we can and should address mental health issues, and that we don't have to reinvent the wheel to accomplish this. There are whole industries and professions, like social work and psychology, that understand what it means to be human-centered in much deeper ways than we could possibly imagine.
We hold onto buzzwords like empathy so tightly because they’re almost a part of our identity as a UX researchers. Yet, I don’t see or hear a lot of conversations [in UX] about psychology, counseling, or therapeutic relationships.
At the heart of these issues is empathy. In your recent talk, you took some design leaders to task regarding their misunderstanding of what that means. What do you think people in leadership get wrong about empathy?
Whenever I ask people to name some UX leaders, they tend to name white men and women. And yet there’s research that shows the more you identify with those who make up the majority, the fewer critical awareness skills you have.
For minorities, especially in America, critical awareness is a survival skill taught to you at a young age. Someone told me once that your empathy and ethics only extend as far as your line of inquiry.
You have people in the majority who have been laying the foundation of what empathy is for this whole industry, and yet, they haven't done the work and asked, “What are my barriers that get in the way of this evaluation?”
It’s how you get conferences with panels full of white people talking about the importance of diversity.
Exactly. Personally, I can’t handle any more panels or debates around ethics without people talking about privilege. There are deeper conversations that we're skirting over because it's convenient and comfortable.
I've talked to a lot of people who are having panic attacks or experiencing depression, and yet they feel like it's because of something wrong with them. They don’t see the correlation between their mental health and the 11 months of work they've been doing with refugees or what have you.
You once said that “privilege has allowed people to go blindly into their work without thinking of the bias and values they weave into their research.” And I thought that was so fascinating. Do you have any examples of what that looks like and how it might impact either the user or the researchers themselves?
I came across this product once that gauged people’s physical activity to help them understand their fitness lifestyles. It was supposed to customize a program to help them become healthier.
And there was a section of this product where it asked the user what type of fitness routines they did—but it gave options like yoga, barre workouts, and CrossFit. So I asked the designers in the room who they imagined using this app.
They said they thought it’d be a good fit for anyone who wants to be healthy and fit—but all those options listed were expensive! Who’s going to do CrossFit or barre on a DVD at home? It was only catering to a certain economic demographic.
In order to be inclusive, we need to think about activities that everyone can afford to participate in. A lot of the designers working on that product came from privilege, so I challenged them: what does it look like to have privilege and to recognize that when you're designing products and experiences?
I’ve talked to a lot of people who are having panic attacks or experiencing depression, and yet they feel like it’s because of something wrong with them.
What would be the antidote for that? How do you avoid a situation like that coming up ever again?
Create a checklist or criteria for making a product inclusive.
Does this product consider everyone coming from a different socioeconomic background? Does it consider people of color? Does it consider people with different physical abilities? Does it consider access to transportation and food?
Let's say you're building an app where you give people a meal plan, and you give them a lot of great food recommendations. But if the user lives in a food desert and they don't have access to a bunch of organic produce, how does your product really help them?
How can the UXR space make empathy more than just a trendy buzzword?
Part of it is recognizing we're not as special as we think.
We hold onto these buzzwords so tightly because they’re almost a part of our identity as a UX researchers. Yet, I don't see or hear a lot of conversations [in UX] about psychology, counseling, or therapeutic relationships.
And part of it is also just stopping and questioning some of these orthodoxies we’ve held onto for so long and asking, “Where did that come from? Why do we keep pushing this narrative around what empathy? What is informing that perspective?”
The reason we have more people pushing back is because Millennials and Gen Z are entering the workforce. They’re a more diverse generation than Gen X and Baby Boomers. They're coming onto the job and saying, “Why aren't we talking about these things?”
They recognize the problem and they want things to change for them.
Yes, and I think this brings up questions for leadership. Are you going to create space for those conversations? Or do you feel like you still need to be the leading voice?
I believe that the mark of true leadership lies in the ability to create space for the voices and points of view of those who identify with under-represented (and often under-estimated) communities within our industry. That is the key to making our industry better and helping us to continually move in the right direction.
They have to invite people in that have new experiences we can draw from.
Exactly. This is where power dynamics and politics within UX research comes into play. Are people willing to release some of that power to actually create space for people that can make our industry better?
It’s like the term limits for politicians. Your time is up—now it’s time to make room for someone else to assume the role and push our industry forward.
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.