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

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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 three burning questions: (1) Why are we less likely to photograph participants who are ‘closer’ to us? (2) To what extent are images ‘photographic evidence’? Are we using them to assert an unfair aura of objectivity, an undeserved right to speak for the user? and (3) Is ethnography effective in the absence of participant photographs?

Elizabeth Baylor is an applied anthropologist and User Experience Researcher at Google, where she enhances Googler learning and development tools, and more recently, social giving apps. She received her PhD from the University of South Florida and has previous experience at Microsoft, University of Alabama, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. ebaylor@google.com

Marina Kobayashi is a User Experience Researcher at Google, working on internal tools for Googlers. She earned her Masters in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University where she got her start doing research on collaboration and work coordination. Before Google, she worked at Intel, Ebay, EA, and Sony Playstation. kobayashim@google.com

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