Finding Empathy Through Generative Research

These days, most people have an idea what user research means. Even outside the usual circles of people we work with, the concept at least correlates to surveys or product testing. For the most part, however, people I run across have a strictly evaluative understanding of user research.

Search for Empathy

Bringing empathy to design is very important if you want to add meaning to the products and services we create. In this series Indi Young (author of Mental Models and founding partner of Adaptive Path) shares her thoughts about this subject.

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“I’ve got a prototype to test or a set of concepts to put in front of a focus group. Or maybe I’m doing some A/B testing.” An idea already exists that may help people be successful and may make your organization successful. You do evaluative user research to see how well that idea works before investing time and money developing it. (Okay, yeah, some organizations do evaluative research while developing the idea, or after launching it, too, taking a gamble that the idea will resonate.)

Other divisions at your organization may have to be introduced to the preceding idea of generative research. The definition of generative is “capable of creating.” Compare the definition of evaluative, “judging the quality or value,” and you can see the clear difference between the type of knowledge gained from either type of research. Generative research is a collection of knowledge about people who might potentially use your services or products, but might not. It is neutral to any products or services. Instead, generative research focuses on internal reasoning while a person does something of particular interest to your organization. This knowledge helps your team produce better ideas, more on track with people’s real life situations. The knowledge gives you empathy.

Generative research works hand-in-hand with evaluative research as a part of a cycle that keeps risk, concealed opportunities, and wasted investment at bay. To start the cycle, begin building empathy with a particular subset of the people your organization is interested in. Paper the walls (or the virtual walls) with the knowledge you gather. Feather your nest. I particularly like that phrase because your nest is where you create, prepare, correct, groom your offspring—the products and services you offer. You do your best work in your nest, nourished by the empathy you have of the people you are supporting. (Some teams bring those people in to their nest, or go out to them, and ask them to assist in the creation process. That’s participatory design.)

Once you have an idea you believe is viable, take it out into the world. Evaluate whether your idea does a good job of supporting the people you have identified, making them successful. This second part of the cycle gives you knowledge about where the idea needs adjusting, so back into the nest you go, again drawing on your empathy to improve the design. After the design is improved and seems likely to be successful for everyone, develop it. Invest the money and get it out there.

Then extend your empathy to include another subset of people that your organization is interested in. Add more knowledge to the walls of your nest. Create more ideas. Go out and judge how well those ideas work, adjust them, and then develop them with less risk. And so on.

Indi Young

Indi Young is a problem solver by heart. She is the author of 'Mental Models' (Rosenfeld Media) and has been working as a consultant on web applications since 1995. In 2001 she co-founded Adaptive Path. Indi has worked with many different clients, including Visa, Charles Schwab, Sybase, Agilent, Dow Corning, Microsoft, and PeopleSoft.

2 comments on this article

  1. Doug on

    The metaphor of the nest is intriguing. I like that the nest is built from the observations we have of our users, and that it is a place of incubation and inspiration. I also like that what emerges from the nest is not the nest itself – or in other words, not just simply giving the user what they believe they need. The output is rather a product of the designer’s expertise that was under the nurturing influence of the nest.

    Very cool

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