Contributed Articles

Empathy without a Face: Is Ethnography Effective in the Absence of Participant Photographs?

ELIZABETH ELLIOTT BAYLOR Google, Inc. MARINA KOBAYASHI Google, Inc. UX researchers channel the voice of the user. They succeed to the extent that they are able to build bridges, giving designers and stakeholders an authentic sense of user emotions, motivations, challenges, and delights. Good research pushes the design team to feel what the user feels, participating vicariously in the user experience. One of the surest ways to establish empathy is through photography. Images ‘from the field’ bring a participant to life, while implying authenticity and the researcher’s authority to tell a user’s story. But we aren’t taking pictures. As researchers for Google’s internal tools and infrastructure, our subjects are our coworkers, and participant faces are conspicuously absent in our deliverables. We asked ourselves why and stumbled into larger issues of truth, exoticism, and representation. We explore what the lack of participant photographs has meant for our work by revisiting image-intensive past projects and addressing...