Beyond Empathy 3: Research as mediation

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This article is the third and last in the series entitled “Beyond empathy”, where we first took a historical tour around the emergence of the notion of “user experience” , and then we reviewed some of the main problems and challenges that research faces. In this text we are going to develop some questions around the potential that UX research harbors, bringing to the fore the figures of diplomacy and mediation. 


From autonomy to collaboration


Any product or service design and development activity involves processes that are complex and dynamic over time. So much so, that users and products should not be seen as totally separate entities but as notions that mutually mold each other throughout these processes. For example, it is said that any product or service has a certain “interpretative flexibility”, which implies that the meaning attributed to the same object varies between different social groups, and also that these meanings change according to the circumstances or the contexts in which they are used.


One implication of this is that the construction process does not run in one direction only, that is, from designers or producers to users. Just as users play a critical role in this process, designers are not the only ones with the power and ability to shape technology; in turn, these are part of a broader network of relationships, where economic, political and social factors strongly influence the development of a certain product or service. In fact, all too often, professionals work in companies that largely shape both the actual conditions and the possibilities for action. With this we want to highlight that the processes of construction of technologies or services are highly complex and that any rhetoric of the so-called “user-centered design” must take into account this complexity of the contexts in which professional practice takes place. For this reason, when we speak of “putting the user at the center”, we must be very cautious when it comes to idealizing the degree of autonomy that we actually have..


In this sense, we can say that design does not consist only in creating products or artifacts that improve the final result, but in practice it has a lot to do with inserting oneself into processes of collaboration and creativity between very disparate actors. From this approach, design largely involves creating relationships and establishing contexts to build new things. In other words, the work of professionals has a lot to do with practicing this relationship, that is, understanding one’s position in the world, and its relationship with space, ideas, and other living beings, human or not. 


A tug of war 


The idea that we would like to put forward is that the UX researcher can be seen as that person capable of navigating and mediating along construction processes that are complex and dynamic, and that involve very different and sometimes conflicting interests and aspects. 


Indeed, designers can often be compelled by dynamics and forces external to them, but this is not the same as passively accepting things as they come, or remaining completely powerless over them. Although perhaps it is not possible to completely eliminate the borders that delimit the action frames of each one, there may nevertheless be a certain amount of communication; or what we can also call a kind of diplomacy. We like this term because the real challenge of diplomatic practice (as is often the case with the UX researcher) is not so much to arrive at a new point of view that dissolves previous divergences, but rather to find practical arrangements between contrasting parties. 


Asargues Cooper (2007), any product and service arises as a result of the “push and pull” of different, and often opposing, forces. At best, the design will provide a solution that addresses multiple goals and imperatives at the same time, including user needs, business interests, and technical limitations. That is why we say that at the center of the UX researcher’s practice is this diplomatic motivation, destined to unite and make different influences converge in the definition of a product. 


Then, in closing, the question we want to ask is how can we best foster this “diplomatic” character of design processes and practices, as well as address the main challenges that this entails. It is not our purpose to give a series of final guidelines or rules, but to propose some tools or skills that we believe can help the researcher become that figure of mediation within highly complex processes. Specifically, we will mention two: listening practices and the “pivot” function.


Listening and diplomacy


The first is easy to understand and is summarized in the following: the researcher must deploy high doses of listening, and not only in relation to the users, which are only one of the elements to consider, but also with the rest of the actors within a project. The value of the researcher’s practice is not measured so much in terms of the knowledge that he is capable of producing (understood as “objective” propositions about the world) but in the perception and judgment skills that he develops in the course of arrangements and commitments with the different actors involved in a project. In other words, UX research is not just a series of techniques aimed at extracting knowledge about users, but above all a practice aimed at establishing compromises between different spheres. We are not saying that understanding users is not a central part of the researcher’s work, but that this part cannot be removed from the other spheres in which the development of a product is inserted -and of which the researcher is part. 


This changes a bit how we see research methodologies within the field of design as a whole, moving from an activity destined to feed the production of ideas, to a practice that operates as a kind of pivotal role between different forces. In practice, this already happens to a certain extent, because if we think about the different tools and techniques used during a design process (People, user sessions, prototypes, etc.) we see that they work both as a way to encompass ideas or knowledge, and also a way to legitimizing that knowledge, and make it actionable throughout a process that lasts over time. That is, these artifacts do not pretend to mark a fixed or final position, but are open and unfinished and to that extent they can be used as pivots with respect to which different actors converge and organize themselves, by indicating a direction and a path for things to keep on moving. The “pivot” function of the research that we mentioned above refers also to this ability to generate knowledge artifacts that are used as objects of mediation between heterogeneous parties, contexts and concerns.


By way of conclusion,we want to highlight that, beyond empathy (which until today has constituted the fundamental figure of UX research and which, as we have argued, raises important theoretical and methodological problems), perhaps it is diplomacy the one that best describes the reality of these professionals in their day-to-day life. We believe that diplomacy, understood as the exercise of translation and the construction of common convergence frameworks between disparate and sometimes conflicting interests, is also the place where the greatest value and potential for UX research as a practice resides. 



COOPER, A., REIMANN, R., & CRONIN, D. (2007). About Face 3. The Essentials of Interaction Design. Wiley Publishing: Indianopolis, Indiana. 


ROGAL, M. & SÁNCHEZ, R. (2017). Co-designing for Development. In Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Design, edited by Rachel Beth Egenhoefer. Taylor and Francis.