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User researchers need to be resilient, but we’re not made of stone

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Empathy, Ethos

All of us involved in government transformation are doing rewarding, but often hard, work.

It was World Mental Health Day recently and many of my colleagues ran activities and events to help make sure that GDS is a healthy place to work.

This got me thinking about the different ways that user researchers in particular need to take care of themselves in their work.

At the sharp end of change

Change is hard.

Government services are complex. Service teams work within significant time, budget, policy, legal and legacy constraints.

And many of the organisations and teams we work in are just starting on their journey to being more user-centred.

So user researchers often find themselves at the pointy end of that change.

We persuade our teams to take part in research activities that they may feel they don’t have time for. Only to uncover inconvenient evidence that challenges the long-held assumptions of senior stakeholders.

We help our teams put their hardest and best work in front of users. Only for those users to be completely confused by everything they see.

And we do research with people in difficult situations. Our research participants can be vulnerable, emotional and struggling to get the help they need from government.

It’s OK to take care of yourself

When we talk about what makes a good user researcher we often talk about the need to be resilient. To have ‘grit’.

But being resilient isn’t about toughing it out, or suppressing or ignoring your emotions.

We build resilience by taking care of ourselves. Understanding our strengths and vulnerabilities. Being realistic about what we can and can’t do. Watching out for signs of stress. And asking for help and support when we need it.

If you’re having a hard time with these things, speak to your line manager or head of community. They can discuss options for support and training.

It's OK to set limits

When we have too many competing demands it can be easy to feel like we just have to work harder and longer to get everything done.

When we are challenged by sceptical colleagues who don't accept our methods or findings, we can feel the need to push ourselves to do ‘perfect’ research that will satisfy everyone.

When teams are new to a user-centred approach they can ask us to do things that are outside our user research skill set, and would be much better done by other team members. We want to help our team so often we feel like we should give the extra tasks a try, even when we know we won’t do them well and there are other things we should be doing.

But doing good research at a sustainable pace is always better than trying to do perfect research that answers everyone’s questions, and leaves us burnt out.

If you feel that you’re being asked to do too much, speak to your delivery manager. Part of their role is making sure that the people in their team are working at a sustainable pace and have the support they need.

Use the guidance in the service manual to help your team understand more about user research. And use this blog post on working with user researchers to start a conversation about how you and your team can do your best work together.

It’s OK to not accept bad behaviour from colleagues

As user researchers, we can be particularly vulnerable to problems or bad behaviour in teams.

We listen carefully to what people say and closely observe what people do. We think hard about what that might mean.

And we rely entirely on the goodwill and cooperation of our team to do our best work.

If there are problems on your team, speak to your line manager or another colleague that you trust.

We know that there can be problems when people are going through significant changes at work. But that does not mean having to accepting bad behaviour from colleagues.

It’s OK to talk

If you feel like any of these problems are affecting you, please talk about it. With your line manager or your head of community.

Or with me. I can’t promise to have all the answers. Because this advice is as much for me as for anyone else.

Help and information

If you want to talk to someone straight away, even in the middle of the night, then call your departmental Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or equivalent. They can provide counselling and signposting to further support.

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Featured image by Chris Campbell, Resilience - Seoraksan National Park, Korea, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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