Navigating User Research as Designers of Color

How to...thoughtfully craft research practices around race

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about customer development, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

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A few weeks ago, Alba Villamil (@albanvillamil) & I hosted a panel: Race in the Field: Navigating User Research as Designers of Color. We brought together four design leaders, Dr. Chelsea Johnson, Senior UX Researcher at LinkedIn and Author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, Jazmyn Latimer (@JazmynLatimer), Service Design Director at Code for America, Sarah Fathallah (@SFath), Independent Social Designer, and Mithula Naik (@MithulaNaik), Head of Design Research at Canadian Digital Service, to share how their racial background influences their research approach. Our goal was to create a space for designers and researchers to learn and leave with ideas for how to thoughtfully craft research practices around race.

The response was incredible. Here’s just a taste of what people said to us after, via email and #RaceintheField:
“I feel so empowered hearing this and being in this space.”

“This was the panel I needed 10 years ago and then a follow up every year of my life. Thank you”

One of the most on point, powerful convos I've heard in the design space since maybe ever.”

“Truly one of the best, most inspiring and educational events I've been to in a long, long while…so different from the performative/competitive dynamics you often see at conference panels.”

If you joined us live - thank you! Your energy and enthusiasm made my day. If you missed it, don’t worry. You can read my recap below, catch up on the community’s learnings with #RaceintheField on Twitter, and view our Race in the Field resource guide (we sent a link to the replay to all registered attendees - if you didn’t receive this, let me know).

Today, I want to share my recap of some of what we learned:

Researchers of color face additional challenges…

  • Researchers of color face the challenge of balancing between researching the issue and representing the issue. They often feel as if they are playing two roles: a researcher learning more about the problem, and a community member who represents the issue

  • They may work with teams that put the responsibility of handling questions about race solely on POC

  • Researchers of color must navigate code-switching with clients

Some of these challenges are specific to doing research within their own communities…

  • Researchers of color ask themselves, “what is are the ethics of rapport?”

  • When communities of color trust them, researchers of color question, “Am I objective? Am I safe? Am I missing things? Am I burnt out? Am I experiencing second-hand trauma?”

  • Researchers of color embrace that data they collect is filtered through themself, and they challenge themselves to find ways to mitigate their own biases

  • And when presenting research, remember that it’s important to tell empowering, actionable and multidimensional (representative of the community) stories

  • Resist essentialism and focus on the structural conditions. The work/change starts to happen when you learn about your own history

And some are challenges with doing research internationally…

  • Researchers of color have dealt with others re-framing their research to an Anglocentric paradigm

  • They have learned over time how critical it is to dig into lived experience and not only what the research data reveals, and recognize the subjectivity of all knowledge

  • Some struggle with the language of “BIPOC”, which is very specific to a US-centric context, and doesn’t apply to researching in other countries and contexts

  • While researchers of color may understand the nuances of race v.s. ethnicity v.s. nationality, they may be working with teams led by those who do not

With all these challenges, researchers of color have developed strategies to navigate racist interactions in field research…

  • These include protecting one's identity, hiring outside vendors to moderate, emergency planning for triggers, harm, and other signals of an unsafe environment for researchers

  • In general, researchers of color often bear the burden of developing protocols and systems that did not exist before. To do this for your team, a good first step is to ask yourself, “What will you and your teammates do if you enter an unsafe research environment? How will you protect each other?”

  • Additionally, researchers of color must also be careful about how they ask white colleagues to help to avoid perpetuating a culture of credentialism or saviorism

  • In academia, research ethics comes first, and research comes second. In applied industry, it’s often the opposite. Ask, “what would an IRB in applied research look like?”

To move the industry forward, research and design leaders say…

  • When asking, “What should I do if I am the only one?”, question if you want to be in an environment in which you are always the only one

  • Speak up for compensating people for participating in research studies, especially in vulnerable communities. If a researcher is getting paid for the time spent in the interview, the participant should be getting paid too

  • When partnering with colleagues or clients who want to ask you to educate them about race and representation, reframe and shift responsibility by asking, "What have you found from your online searches?"

I’m thankful for the hundreds of people who showed up to learn, and for those who took the time to tell me how much being a part of this conversation meant to them.

If you’re interested in joining future events like this, let me know what topics and formats you’d be interested in here.


Additional Resources

- To learn more about the resources our panelists and live audience for #RaceintheField recommended, view our Race in the Field resource guide.
- To ask the right questions to assess how inclusive your user research processes are, get a copy of my Design Ethics & Inclusion Cards (exclusive discount for newsletter readers). Use these cards to design more inclusive products and services, so you can ask these questions throughout the design process, especially at decision making moments such as design critiques and design research planning meetings.
- Our community needs more people of color in design leadership. Looking for tools to help you level up into leadership? Read my last post, Leveling Up Into Leadership, and download The Product Designer Career Growth Toolkit (exclusive discount for newsletter subscribers) to help you have more concrete career growth conversations with your manager in your next 1:1.

Thanks for reading!

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