When It Comes to UX in the Social Sector, Empathy Is Not Enough, Says Alba Villamil: Ladies That UX

Illustration: Justin Cheong.
When It Comes to UX in the Social Sector, Empathy Is Not Enough, Says Alba Villamil: Ladies That UX
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The social sector is an inspiring arena for UX researchers and UX designers who want to make a difference in other people’s lives, but make no mistake, it is not typical UX work. At its core, you’re working with nonprofit and non-governmental organizations to design products and services that help people access their basic human needs, including food, shelter, education, and more. There is nothing simple about it, and a standard set of principles will not suffice.

“One of the things that you first realize when you’re doing research or designing for the social sector is that empathy is not enough,” said Alba Villamil, a UX researcher and public speaker who calls the social sector home.

Empathy is often considered the cornerstone of UX design and research, but empathy doesn’t always tell the whole story. There’s this assumption, Alba says, that if only UX professionals could see through the eyes of their users, then they could design the right product. However, this can potentially be harmful in the social sector where the users you’re working with are often vulnerable, scared, and sometimes not sure whom to trust.

Headshot of Alba Villamil, UX researcher in the social sector.
Alba Villamil, UX researcher in the social sector.

Why making assumptions can harm users

With an academic background in the sociology of immigration and inequality, Alba’s work concentrates on serving underserved populations including refugees, low-income families, and domestic violence survivors. She loves her work, and the insights she brings from her experience transcend the social sector to challenge the hypothesis designers from any industry might sometimes make about their users.

“I think there’s a certain assumption that users can articulate their needs, motivations, and frustrations, and that we as researchers can observe them. What I’ve learned in the social sector is that often we’re designing for users who don’t understand the context that they’re operating within,” Alba said.

Due to the sensitive nature of Alba’s research, she is unable to provide explicit details of her work, but she does give an example of one of her current projects. She is presently conducting UX research for a Central American asylum-seeking project in which she asks users to talk her through their journey from Guatemala into Mexico, then across the U.S. border.

“They can tell you what happened to them and what they felt about what was happening to them, but they don’t necessarily know why those things happened,” she said.

This is why her research goes beyond ‘user research’ alone. The projects she works on will eventually lead to products she hopes will help improve the safety of the refugee experience. There are other factors at play here too, including the complex government systems and complicated political climates that affect the user experience, but remain outside of the user’s control.

To better understand, Alba asks a lot of tough questions.

“What are the governmental dynamics happening? What are the institutions that these people are interacting with? Who are the other actors that are almost playing them like a marionette behind the scenes that they don’t even know is happening? That requires us as researchers to triangulate our findings,” Alba said.

She interviews users, yes, but then she also interviews experts including sociologists, journalists, people working in the non-profit space, police officers, lawyers, and other individuals who can provide insight into the process. The work is multi-faceted, tough, and at times emotional, but these perspectives are all vital to eventually producing a product that can make a real difference in a user’s life.

“We have to design not just for what our users are saying or what we see them doing, but also for all of this other abstract stuff that’s going on around them,” Alba said. “That’s what I love about being a researcher, is being able to explore all of the possible mechanisms and factors that may be preventing these people from accessing the services that they need.”

A selection of books and their authors are pictured as some of the secondary sources Alba has been using on the Central American asylum project.
The books pictured (and their authors) are some of the secondary sources Alba has been using on the Central American asylum project.

Switching from a career in academics to UX

Alba has been working as a UX researcher and consultant for three years now, a switch she made while studying sociology in graduate school. While she loved academia, she wanted her research to make an impact.

“In academia, you can produce really interesting rigorous work, but oftentimes the research that you produce isn’t really being seen by the politicians or community leaders who could benefit from reading your research. I wanted to find an industry [where my research] could actually have direct application,” Alba said.

“The social sector is a really interesting space for researchers. You’re working with organizations that recognize the need for a data-driven, human-centered approach because they want to design something that actually impacts a group of people’s lives. I was really attracted to that and the possibility of UX allowing me to do that.”

Like many of the women featured in this series, Alba began attending meetups as she was transitioning from academic research to UX research, and found herself involved with Ladies That UX, a community that is known for supporting people who are entering UX from a variety of different backgrounds. Lara Cavezza and Olga Perfilieva, organizers of the Boston chapter, recommended Alba for this piece.

Breaking another UX Myth: Content expertise does matter

As Alba was moving into her new career, she knew her background in immigration and inequality would help her transition into the social sector, particularly because she had content expertise in this area.

“As UX researchers, we’re often told you can just dive into any industry, that you can go from healthcare to social media to fintech. Research is research. But I think in the social sector, there is so much complexity in the context that you’re researching and designing for that it’s really helpful to have content expertise on a design or development team,” Alba said.

Alba often has limited time or financial resources at her disposal to do the type of research she needs to do and test. Having familiarity in the complexities of the environment and the factors that might be influencing her target users’ needs and behaviors has helped her to narrow the scope of her projects.

When she was first transitioning to independent work, she briefly debated returning to school to study to UX, but ultimately decided against it, instead seeing the value in having another perspective.

“I think when you have some type of industry background, whether that’s academics or journalism or something unrelated to design, you are bringing with you all of the ways of thinking that those industries have,” Alba said.

A photo of some of the first concept maps Alba put together when she was beginning the Central American asylum project.
A photo of some of the first concept maps Alba put together when she was beginning the Central American asylum project. Provided by Alba.

Her experience in some ways shatters the assumption that empathy and adaptability are all you need to make it as a UX researcher or designer in today’s age. Instead, she encourages external subject matter expertise, dares to ask tough questions, and challenges often-overlooked assumptions in the user research process.

Much of this pertains to her passion for ethics in UX, which is where she plans to take her research next. Her work with refugees has opened her eyes to many of the nuances that come with ensuring one’s research is not only valuable, but ethical. It’s a challenge in the social sector, where much of her work involves recruiting people who don’t want to be found, earning their trust once she finds them, and then working to ensure her findings are secure.

“With all the things that are politically happening right now, it’s very challenging to keep certain data private and secure, so that becomes a technical challenge as well. The ethics of UX research become more salient than it might in other sectors,” Alba said.

UX designers have earned a seat at the table and it’s their turn to talk

If this inspires you, a career in the social sector might be your calling. The social sector needs people that are passionate, empathetic, diverse, resilient, trustworthy, and full of heart. It helps, too, if you know how to articulate the value of your research, as these soft skills are vital in taking your research and work to the next level.

Designers are often so preoccupied with trying to get a seat at the table that they don’t think about what they’re going to do once they get there, says Alba. More than ever before, UX designers and researchers have that seat, and now it’s their turn to say something.

“It’s so important as UX researchers, no matter what sector you work in, to be able to communicate the value of your research and findings in such a way that your stakeholders have to listen and act upon those findings,” she said. “Those soft skills are what will get us from data to change.”

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