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User Research War Stories: “Taking empathy to a whole new level”

My friend Steve Portigal, an esteemed customer research consultant in the Bay Area, has a series on his blog titled “War Stories” — anecdotes from ethnographic researchers about the craziest things that have happened to them in the field.

One entry from Priya Sohoni is particularly striking. Titled “Taking empathy to a whole new level,” Priya tells the story of her observation in the maternity ward of a hospital when she herself was 8 months pregnant.

On one of the shadowing sessions, I sat in on a nurse shift change. The nurses went around the table sharing information about the newborns and their mothers and taking careful notes of the patients’ needs and requests. On one of the nurses’ share-outs, she turned to the nursing manager and said: “Baby girl in room 203, born vaginally at 8:02am, had trouble breathing, survived for 53 seconds and then died. Should I register her as a live birth or a still birth?” I felt as if someone had stabbed me in my stomach. So much pain that I clenched my tummy, sat down on the floor and broke into tears. I was expecting a baby girl too, in just over a month. Why was the nurse so unemotional around a baby’s death?

[Read on…]

Her story gave me pause not only for its emotional impact, but something a bit more subtle: Priya couldn’t stop herself from being 8 months pregnant, and in that harrowing moment found herself empathizing more with the patient than with the nurse she was meant to be observing.

From the story there is nothing to indicate that Priya is an unempathetic person or a poor researcher — quite the opposite. How many people do you know whom at 8 months pregnant would agree to even conduct field research in the first place? And in a hospital no less? And choose the maternity ward?

Priya clearly wanted to push her boundaries, wanted to learn something new, wanted to open her eyes to what the “other side” — the nurses and doctors — really truly experience, in part because her work would benefit, but I’m guessing more so because her life would benefit as well. Wanting to build empathy for the staff one month prior to her own need for them was surely part of her motivation.

And even with such good intentions, such openness and bravery, she was still predisposed to instinctively empathizing with the patient (herself) and not the nurse (her subject).

But what she did next is the true barometer of her resolve and her empathic capacity: she kept observing. Even after a moment of emotional defeat, she picked herself up and continued to shadow the nurse doing her rounds. And it was then, when the nurse showed another side of herself, that Priya finally saw the bigger picture. It was then that insight was established.

Priya’s lesson is profound. Sometimes you have to wait. We can never shed our own skin, change our circumstances. It’s always going to shade what we see and what we hear. But wait. Keep waiting. Keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when the switch is going to flip and when your mind is going to open up to a whole new meaning.

Thank you to Steve for this wonderful series and to Priya for her willingness to share a very personal story that has the power to influence us all.

No one said it would be easy. That’s why those who try reap the benefits.

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  • http://www.portigal.com/blog Steve Portigal

    Thanks, Whitney. I really appreciate your thoughts on this story. I’m by turns charmed, touched, aghast and more with the stories people have been sharing in this series and I’m so pleased that you found something meaningful enough to write about it. Your take on it is right on (IMHO)!

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      No, thank you, Steve! I absolutely love the series you’re doing and felt it really deserved to be highlighted. This post in particular spoke to what I believe in and why what we do means so much to me. Thank you for publishing it and thanks again to Priya for writing (and living!) it.

  • http://www.thelittlepenny.com Samantha LeVan

    I don’t know how to put this eloquently, but this is a good example of what ethnography is about. The learning and understanding of someone who sees all sides of an experience, particularly for product design, is uncommon but so important to shape how designers (and stakeholders) create something. Those emotions being held back still impact that nurse as she works through charting. A talented (and brave) ethnographer keeps going to understand things that don’t make sense at first glance (like lack of emotions during nurse’s notes sharing).

    Unfortunately, I’ve been on the patient side of this story. I watched my nurses break down as much as I did, tear up each time they came in my room, and show as much respect for my baby boy as any other baby born that night. They then had to choke it up, put away the tears and care for other patients, collaborate with colleagues, and probably share notes just like Priya’s experience. Until now, I never really thought about it outside myself. Never thought about the poor nurse having to get herself together for the rest of the shift. That has to suck.

    Great post for user research’s sake and for the well-deserved props for nurses everywhere.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Samantha, thank you for sharing your story with such courage. Your reverse perspective on these circumstances gives us all a lot to think about.

      We are never going to know how every person feels in every situation, as life is too damn short for us to live and learn it all (thankfully). But at the end of the day, if we aren’t trying, even (especially) when our chips are down, we’re forfeiting a chance to connect with another human being and enriching both of our lives.

      Thank you for giving us that chance.