The Power of Empathy in Research Design

Samantha Nicholson

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Sophie Grieve-Williams

    A sense of empathy is a core feature of a good researcher. Given that our job is to understand and interpret the feelings of others, its essential that we can connect with our participants and ask questions in a way that puts them at ease, allowing them to be open and honest with us. We therefore need to demonstrate empathy in our thinking and translate that directly into our research. As well as being an approach that is likely to put participants in the best mindset for sharing sincere feedback, it is also within our ethical duty to approach our work in a way that avoids potential participant discomfort.

    Though there are many methodologies that use empathy as a core research approach, in this blog I want to talk about how we can consider empathy more generally, and how we can incorporate empathetic considerations within our day-to-day research designs.

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    Empathy is an important consideration in all stages of market research, but especially in research design; designing safe spaces can lead to open high-quality insights.

    Considering Empathy in Research Design

    Putting participants emotions and wellbeing at the centre of our research design is essential if we are going to keep participants engaged in our research projects and answering honesty throughout all the tasks we might throw at them. See below a few tips on how you can easily apply an empathetic approach to your research design.

    Language and tone

    Firstly, across all different research tasks and methodologies, we need to be mindful of the language we use. Adopting a friendly and welcoming tone will instantly aid the start of the researcher–participant relationship and help the participant feel at ease. If you are conducting qualitative research, you might have the chance to thank participants for their answers before asking for further insights on an area of interest - this simple acknowledgment can be crucial to making participants feel comfortable, and then they’ll likely share more detail as a result. In quant research, simply incorporating encouraging messages throughout your surveys will help convey a friendly tone.

    Use a qualitative tool that allows for private prompts & replies

    At FlexMR, we regularly run online qualitative research, a lot of the time this will include group discussions where participants’ thoughts and experiences are voiced in an open forum. Inbuilt in our group-based qualitative tools, we have the option for the moderator to message participants privately during a given task/discussion. Taking a participant away from the prying eyes and ears of a group discussion gives them some space to talk privately and candidly to the moderator, potentially sharing insights that they wouldn’t dare to in a group setting.

    Clearly if a topic is sensitive, or we are asking for quite in-depth and personal details, then this is an ideal way of continuing a conversation with an individual without putting a spotlight on them in front of the rest of the group. As well as using this tool to have more personal conversations, you can also use it to check in on individuals as the group runs. It may be clear from a person’s body language or answers that they feel uncomfortable, if this happens at any given point there is then the option to message the individual and allow them to share any anxieties directly with the moderator. Providing the option of a 1-to-1 conversation within such tasks offers an environment in which the participant can feel least judged by others.

    Provide moderator guidance

    We can start the preparations for an empathetic approach well in advance of the actual fieldwork. At the design stage its important to consider and pre-empt any topic areas that could allow a participant to feel remotely uncomfortable. If you are scripting the topics for an online discussion, it might be appropriate to leave moderator notes throughout the document. These notes give us the opportunity to remind the moderator to check-in with the wellbeing of the group and also could highlight any areas where private discussion could be a necessary tool.

    For instance, researchers can include a pre-scripted opt-out for certain answers ‘If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your answer in the group, please feel free to message me privately’. Some moderators are well trained to do this out of habit, however, providing additional prompts throughout our designs helps to remind the researcher when this approach may be necessary.

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    Empathetic research design can take many forms, such as skippable questions, moderator guidance, and prior warning for more sensitive questions.

    Skippable questions

    In quant studies, this moderator guidance can still appear in the form of skippable questions. When it comes to quant research, one way to ensure that participants are not ‘put on the spot’ in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, is to always provide an opt-out, this could be an answer option that days ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t remember’ or, in some cases, you might want to give them the opportunity to skip the question completely.

    Warning questions

    Sometimes in surveys when you are about to focus on a sensitive topic and have some personal questions lined up, what can work well is giving the participant a ‘heads-up’ on what is about to come their way!
    Sometimes it is fitting to add an information question to the survey, placed just ahead of your sensitive question block, that informs the participant what topics are about to be covered and, on that basis, then ask if they feel comfortable to proceed.

    The Power of Empathy

    At the end of the day all these methods lead back to the same thing, treating the participant respectfully. To get in the mindset of doing this, one thing I have heard from other researchers is to apply the ‘mum test’; thinking of your participant as a dear relative automatically changes the way in which you may go about your questioning and the sensitivity in which you choose to approach certain topics. Though you may not always want your mother in mind when creating certain research content, the sentiment is similar to that of 'stepping in other people's shoes' and remains that it is key to think of our participants, not as a data point, but as the valuable and wonderful humans that they are!

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