When I first entered the UX field, I’ll admit that I eagerly drank the UX Research kool-aid, the batch filled with talks and articles about “the importance of empathy within UX,” how we are “advocates for the user,” that we need to “be aware of our biases” and that what we do leads to more “human-centered experiences.” But as time passes and disillusionment settles in, it’s time we discuss one of the glaring hypocrisies of UX Research. In doing so, we can collectively start to move in a different direction than the current trajectory of our industry: forward.
For an industry that prides itself on being experts in valuing and understanding people, it never ceases to amaze how much we talk about empathy & human-centered design in comparison to how little we talk about the challenging personal work necessary to achieve it. If the general public were made aware of the UX Research Industry’s Achilles Heel — if they were exposed to how little we collectively try to absolve its existence through the prioritization of discussions, professional development, podcasts, books, and even conferences — I believe they would come to see our bold claims of being the user’s advocate and voice as a lie.
The UX Research Industry’s Achilles Heel rests in our inability to discuss, acknowledge and absolve the effects of unchecked white privilege and male privilege within our leadership, organizations, conferences, and research.
Let’s briefly talk about privilege.
It’s the elephant in the room that no one is leaping to acknowledge or address. It’s present in our conferences, it finds its way into the room when we’re with a participant, it can blind us from bias and fuel our assumptions, its presence often goes unnoticed, and its effects are rarely voiced.
Privilege — more specifically white privilege — is one of the most misunderstood realities within our industry. The main counter-argument people often cite how hard they or their family worked to get to where they are and other events that stunted financial and academic flourishing. So for the sake of this post, I’m going to be working from the following definition:
“Privilege is not an idea aimed at muting opinion or understating the worth of accomplishments. It is not a stab at personal character, nor is it something for which one needs to apologize. But it is also not a myth. Privilege refers to the very real benefits that society affords certain groups over others, and it is manifested in many ways.” (Briana Payton in “Dear Privileged-at-Princeton: You. Are. Privileged. And Meritocracy Is a Myth.”)
I bring up white privilege and male privilege (more like heterosexual-cisgender male privilege) because — well — the majority of our industry’s leaders are white men and white women. There’s nothing wrong with that per se but if we’re being honest with ourselves, most white people — especially white Americans — aren’t known for their reputation of being super eager and willing to talk about privilege & bias and the real benefits it affords some people over others, let alone acknowledge the role it plays in understanding and advocating for people. What we have instead is the constant repackaging and selling of best practices and ideas about how to “do” research faster and better without the call to carefully think about the biases and values we are unknowingly weaving into our research and the direct impact it has on the individuals and families exposed to the experiences and products we help create.
And while I won’t belabor the statistics related to the tech sector, other forms of privilege, and common reactions to this conversation like I do in my Medium post “The P-Word,” I think it’s important for us to pause and collectively understand this: Unchecked privilege and the bias that often accompanies it are tools for hoarding empathy, not extending it; we’ve created a culture within the UXR Industry that encourages such hoarding. We’ve bought into the lie that UX Researchers must learn how to create and increase empathy between ourselves (or our stakeholders) and the user, when in reality we need to learn to stop hoarding it.
This lie has allowed us to be satisfied with conferences and leaders in our field who continue to repackage talks on best UXR practices and techniques, while ignoring the barriers that get in the way of empathy.
This lie has allowed us to be content with conferences whose value of diversity, inclusion, equality and belonging isn’t reflected within their speakers, panelists, and audience .
This lie has allowed us to overlook how much personal work must be done in tandem with professional work in order for us to become pretty damn good at what we profess to accomplish as UX Researchers.
This lie has allowed our conference organizers to host events that are meant to help us value our users better, while they choose not to pay women or minority speakers as much as their white-male peers.
This lie has allowed us to forget the importance of allowing your participants to voice in the screener what their pronouns are and the importance of making sure that your participants don’t only represent one ethnic and socio-economic background.
Indeed, the evidence is quite damning.
To the detriment of ourselves and those we claim to advocate for, our unwillingness to acknowledge and address privilege has created a culture within the UXR Industry that is absent of the call to do the personal work necessary to overcome our biases and acknowledge the role that our experiences play in interpreting research, both within the context of history, systemic and institutionalized realities, and society. At its best, the concept of UX is made into a cliche and at worse it becomes an extension of The Sunken Place.
The UX Research Industry & The Sunken Place
There’s a scene in Get Out, the 2017 box-office thriller, where the audience is introduced to a terrifying reality the main character finds himself descending into after being hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother: it’s called The Sunken Place.
Jordan Peele, the Director and Writer of Get Out, offers the following insight into The Sunken Place:
“The Sunken Place is something that exists not just for black people, but for women, for our Latino brothers and sisters, for any marginalized group that gets told not to say what they’re experiencing. It’s the system. It’s all these cogs in the wheel that sort of keep us where we are … The Sunken Place is the silencing. It’s the taking away of our expression, of our art. It’s the very fact that this movie has never been made before.” (source: The Guardian)
The point I want to make here is simple: should you choose to not do the personal work necessary to acknowledge your privilege, understand the benefits its granted you, and/or commit to the personal work needed to protect your research and participants from your biases, you are supporting the Sunken Place. Yes, you are supporting the system.
The system that allows us to believe the lie that UX is primarily about behavior divorced from historical or cultural context.
The system that continues to have mostly white and/or mostly male speakers and panelists at conferences.
The system that causes white liberal/progressive individuals to think they’re excused from conversations regarding privilege, bias, and efforts related to diversity, inclusion and belonging.
The system that conveniently doesn’t challenge women-centered organizations in our industry to think about, act on, and acknowledge intersectionality.
The system that utters excuses like “Not enough women applied” or “There aren’t enough qualified minorities for this position.”