Close up photo of blue butterflies in a museum exhibition case. The pins either side of their small bodies barely visible.
Trigger warnings: This article will reference some personal stories of emotional and physical abuse.
Are the abused, to whom it is second nature to subdue or even deny their own existence, the ones who also find it uncannily easy to become the ‘voice of the user’?
How might we better understand then how their own voices can be lost in the fray?
I’m both a painfully honest person and a tremendous self-editor.
Honest questions like: Can experiencing and understanding abuse and trauma make me a good user experience designer? recur frequently for me ever since sliding into the ‘primary role’ of a UX designer over the last 5 years of my design career. The edited part being the depth which I can or will go into how personal experience leads me to question whether it makes me good, or incredibly fragile. I’m going to try to not self edit.
My hypothesis is:
If, as a child or adolescent, you were forced into a role where your survival depended on anticipating a mental state and/or the emotional state of an adult ‘caregiver’, that led you to develop certain skills necessary for survival. Are you in a good position, as an adult to be designing user experiences. Especially for vulnerable people?
I subscribe to the idea that working in a user experience design role is the meshing of design, psychology and sociology.
I don’t have what many would describe as a ‘formal’ education in either design, psychology or sociology. I self-taught design over the course of 10 years and became academically interested in psychology and sociology later.
What I did study was art. I found that an art education does lend you a kind of unique critical thinking process, introspection and how to communicate complex topics in ways that could register on many levels, most of which are personal to the individual.
As such, I’m interested in how my background may have had a hand in what I do as a UX designer. Particularly around how the skills that are essential in keeping you safe in a hostile environment, can be used or morphed (when you’re no longer in a threatening scenario) into building empathetic experiences or conducting empathetic UX research?
And at what cost, to either yourself or the participants?
Complementary to my education background, my experience with abuse and subsequent trauma, has offered me High Self-Monitoring, Hypervigilance and a predisposition to and taking on a lot of Emotional Work/Labour. Emotional Labour has typically been categorised and stated in research as ‘women’s’ work but I consider it the work of the oppressed regardless of gender. Not to play down the role that women have played in exposing the inequality of emotional labour in a ‘opposing cis gendered’ dynamic. I recommend reading the Emotional labour masterpost for more detail
These traits are also sometimes referred to as ‘people pleaser’ personality (also known as Sociotropy). Though I feel a distinction must be made between those individuals that would be met with violence and abuse if they do not please verses those who would not.
Some of you are probably thinking about the potential usefulness of high empathy skills within user centred work. Sure, it can be very useful to anticipate needs and wants and be ‘tuned’ into others emotions. However, what often isn’t explored is the consequences of this can be, the impact these have, and how this creates an environment where people can vastly over-extend themselves. Depending on the persons background it can range from distressing to catatonic when you misinterpret an emotion or read a situation incorrectly.
I’m going to find it hard to express a coherent point without going into my experiences in more depth.
I’ll try to focus on the key essential things. From here on, there will be trigger warnings that detail emotional and physical abuse. Any detail will finish after the next set of dots finishing this section but may be referenced in further sections.
What an abusive environment can look like
Abusive environments come in many shapes. Some are purely emotional, some are physically violent. Some are easier to understand and follow what could be described as a logical pattern, others are erratic and contribute to the instability. Growing up, I comprehended incredibly quickly, by about age 5, that if I did or said a ‘wrong thing’ around one parent, I was either just verbally assaulted or that involved violence too. By ‘wrong thing’ I’d like to stress that this was generally not doing what was expected of me by this parent. This included, but limited limited to: Standing ‘wrong’, not smiling, saying the ‘wrong’ things in company, having the ‘wrong’ emotions, not affectionately hugging violent parent and when particularly young, the worst was not being allowed to cry when faced with the fallout of doing the wrong things. I have particularly vivid memories of crying after being hit, only to be further rebuked because I was crying. Of being forced to stand outside because I had a nosebleed. Forced to eat expired food and say how delicious it was, then deal with the sickness in solitude later that night. It was a terrifying and profoundly confusing setting.
The other parent was largely complicit in the abuse, mostly through silence. The rare times they spoke out was met with a similar pattern of verbal or physical consequences towards them, myself and sibling. As a family, we learned a terrible game of interpretation, acting and bargaining along with systems of finding further unhealthy ways of coping with our turbulent sense of self and stability. This parent parent equally offered both children as scapegoats as many times as they did huddle with us.
After I was old enough to comprehend what was happening, to stay ‘safe’, I became incredibly good at predicting moods, behaviours, patterns, tone of voice, even to the extent of what sound of footsteps on stairs were angry ones or calmer ones. As I got older, I was able to modify and ‘present’ different behaviours and statements that would give me the best chance, in any given situation, to survive unscathed. I learned to perform certain roles incredibly well. This later morphed into being reasonably good at predicting what would be asked of me next, and performing that early to give the impression of conforming and intuition.
In adulthood, as it often does outside of a family setting, I found myself in similar abusive situations. With new challenges but similar verbal and violent consequences and so the skills were never really unlearned and mutated outside of a family parent/child context.
I never believed this was abuse. The word still makes me squirm uncomfortably. To me this was just what families did, mine was just strict, parents overworked, struggling financially with more chips in our shoulders that we must resemble a mountain-scape from a distance.
The thinking that follows to adulthood and into a profession
As a now 30-something adult, my brain still tends to tell me: “If you don’t do this, you will be harmed” or “This person appears to need X. Offer X and you will calm them and be safe”. Fighting the instinct to facilitate needs is very difficult for me. Keeping quiet, politely declining or an unqualified no climbs the scales of difficult to near impossible very quickly. For the most part, it’s a reflex. A default position for me. Later, my brain and body will be panicked question me: “Why did you say or offer X? that’s not what you wanted to say or offer!”.
Channelling that into design work liberates as often as it burdens.I’m often gleeful when I can draw complex conclusions from a small piece of information about someone during a usertesting interview or field study. I find the focus on underlying issues around why humans perform actions and ‘do’ things inherently fascinating. Being able to solve a frustration or a need pulls deeply on that ingrained learning that kept me safe in my childhood. Making other people feel ‘happier’ was the condition by which I measured successful existence
If the ‘holy grail’ for user experience designers and researchers is to truly understand, anticipate and solve users problems so that they have minimal or no problems, someone who performs that duty as though their life depends on it is valuable. But at what cost?
One of the things that perhaps draws me to UX is how easy it is for me to believe statements like “I don’t matter” “Only the user matters” “We are not the users”because of how easily discarded the ‘sense of self’ is with abused people.
Someone recently asked me what my vision was for a large, public creative project, and I drew a complete blank. What I couldn’t put into words at the time was why I was being asked to decide what other people would want when this project hadn’t been able to afford the time and resources to do the user research. How can I, prescribe my ‘vision’ to these thousands of people? I have ideas on what I would want, but are they what the people want? What if I upset someone? What if I don’t accurately represent this?
So paralysed by the fear of not interpreting the need correctly that I briefly believed in that old learned behaviour that I would be harmed should I get it wrong.
Another recent example shows how misinterpreting boundaries or limitations can send me into a rather panicked state. I mistakenly believed that I had built a level of trust with a particular project and asked to connect another person, interested in the developments into it. I was met with an incredibly reasonable response asking for caution and an understandable need to constrain the people involved. Yet, my heart races and my skin prickles with dread at the thought of misinterpreting and ‘not doing the right thing’. To most it would be a mistake, easily communicated and corrected, for me it’s that but with an underlying feeling of anticipating violence.
Conclusions and answers but with caveats.
Typically, I often end up with more questions or threads of thinking than simple answers.
“Does experiencing and understanding abuse and trauma make me good user experience designer?” is mostly a yes, but with some higher stakes and personal consequences.
When doing work directly with users during field studies and testing, we are often the vessels to which frustration, feelings, wants, desires, hopes, complexities are poured into . We then make effort to make sense of the “mess” – The complex system of comments, impulses, observations and often the scant details that humans offer us when being ‘questioned’.
With my background, I find this difficult to turn off. Whenever I’m around people, I’m gathering information, I’m studying behaviours, I’m noticing. I struggle to avoid being the vessel. I have to make a conscious effort to stop. But stopping feels unsafe.
I’ve been offered statements like ‘You’re good with people’ or ‘How did you figure out that theory about that person from a seemingly unrelated piece of information?’. I’m not really good at people, I’m good at noticing needs and ‘making people feel good’ as a survival mechanism. I’m deeply focussed on the base needs of people that serve as the reasons for what they do.
Because of my background, I get easily ‘stuck’ when there isn’t the time or resources to do the user insight and I need to make assumptions. Especially when the interaction is intrinsically tied to human conditions, needs or wants.
I do believe it makes me both a good and relevant person to design for those with difficult and complex needs. I find it easier to relate and understand pain and difficulty because it’s familiar. There’s a risk here though of what I call, ‘experience bleed’ when a persons own experience ‘bleeds’ into that of the participant either during the relationship building/relating part of the research scenario or because of a strong personal relationship to the source material. To use your experience as a baseline can be useful, but It could potentially overpower or augment other experiences in a way that doesn’t actually solve their problems. Having other user focussed teammates is essential for these scenarios as they can help ground the discussion and balance the comparisons.
A point that is less about user facing work, that I hope helps those who work with abuse survivors, is that I essentially believe anyone could harm me at any time, regardless of prior actions. I’m very rarely not scared when I’m interacting with other people. Trust does not come easily to those who experienced care givers as those that also harmed them.
Something I’ve learned through the course of writing this is that you can be good and fragile at the same time.
Thanks for reading and I’m very interested to hear from others in the UX/Design/Research field that have similar experience or that have thoughts on this subject.