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6 Ways UX Researchers can be Advocates for Humans

by Michelle Nguyen
5 min read
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In the UX world, we often hear terms like “user-centered,” “human-centered,” and “customer-centered.” We believe that in order to be innovative, we need to center experiences that are authentic, intuitive, and practical.

But what does being “human-centered” really mean?

To me, as an academic-turned-UX Researcher, it truly means to be an advocate for humans.

Below are some ways that researchers in particular — but also other UXers and Product-focused roles — can become advocates.

1. Stay ethical.

One of the first things you do when you start out in academia is go through a . It’s an extensive training to understand the moral and ethical implications of conducting research with humans. It also highlights what informed consent it, how to obtain it, and how to assess the risk of research.

For those who are self-taught or have career-switched into UX, you probably have skipped this step. However, it’s incredibly important to read up and educate yourself on ethics.

In general, when doing research, do no harm to humans.

When creating an interview or survey script, stay curious but not invasive. Make sure to continuously check in with how participants feel to ensure you are protecting their well-being.

For example, when I had been doing research on people’s health experiences, I had interviewed a person who incidentally had been in the emergency room the night prior. Immediately, the biggest risk in doing this research was causing more emotional trauma when digging into her health experiences. I continued to vocalize that she can opt-in to tell us whatever she felt comfortable with and she can end the interview at anytime with no repercussions. After the interview during the debrief with my team, a fellow team member had said that he would have been “a true researcher” and dug into her experience for more details, regardless of her emotional state.

My response to that is, sure, the role of the researcher is to observe & understand. But the role of the advocate is to protect humans from potentially-traumatizing experiences, and that to me, should always take priority.

2. Focus on the high-level, foundational research and concept testing.

Though usability testing is incredibly useful in creating an intuitive, easy-to-use experience, it’s important to ask yourself, “Are we building the right thing?”

By building the knowledge base of the product or experience you’re creating, you ensure that you are a) defining the problem, b) validating this problem with humans, and c) ensuring your solution actually solves for that problem.

The beautiful thing about foundational research and concept testing is that the learnings will be able to serve you throughout the entire product build cycle and can completely transform how you think about the user experience.

Prioritize it as much as you can.

3. Recruit and purposely research those outside of your “typical user” demographic.

It can be easy to recruit very engaged users or those who are already on a research panel. However, by always conducting research with the same population, you are missing out on those humans who your products do not reach and those who need your advocacy potentially even more.

Use 3rd party recruitment services like  or  to recruit people outside of your “typical user” demographic.

Doing this type of research can potentially uncover a lot more opportunities, or further contribute to your foundational research. It also gives a voice to those who aren’t usually heard.

4. Encourage boundaries.

As I mentioned in the anecdote above, in order to conduct research ethically, always encourage participants to draw boundaries during the research.

When recruiting, make sure to describe the study, the expectations of the study, and if signing a NDA or consent form is necessary.

But, informed consent really does not stop at signing the NDA.

During the interview, explain in the introduction what they should expect, how long the session will take, and make sure they are fully aware if there are other observers.

Emphasize participants have full opt-in power: recording the session, engaging with a question if they choose to do so, asking a clarifying question, and asking a question to the researcher at any point.

With encouraging boundaries, participants will hopefully feel much more comfortable about the research. Think of it as you being an advocate for them advocating for themselves.

5. Bring the human voice to your readouts.

After having done the analysis, it’s easy for researchers to be so familiar with the data that it feels like the findings speak for themselves. More often than not, they don’t.

Include quotes, video recordings, and voice recordings into the readout to further establish empathy and understanding. Let the data speak for itself as you guide stakeholders through your story and learnings.

But also make sure to protect humans’ identities by giving them a pseudo-name or by very clearly emphasizing “internal-use only” of your findings. It’s important to note that while you want these voices to be humanized, you also need to protect their anonymity & confidentiality.

6. Share your findings with the right stakeholders and make moves.

The best part of doing research is making sure it reaches the right people at the right time. The second best part of research is making sure your findings are actionable and therefore acted upon.

As a UX Researcher, it is your responsibility to not only advocate for humans throughout the research process, but also to make sure your stakeholders are interpreting your findings correctly, are learning from your findings, and are translating your findings into action.

Follow-up with stakeholders about their decisions. Understand and explore any follow-up questions or points of concern. The more you can empathize and work with stakeholders, the further you move forward your advocacy.

~As you can see from these 6 tips, there are so many opportunities from the beginning to end of the research process to be advocates.

Therefore, I believe that in order for UX to be truly human-centric, we shouldn’t just interact with humans in the process. We really need to actively be advocates for them.
post authorMichelle Nguyen

Michelle Nguyen,

Michelle is a multidisciplinary UX Researcher, with a background in graphic design, academic research, and museum evaluation. Michelle's strong qualitative skills and foundational psychology knowledge drive her human-centered approach to UX and her advocacy work for users and diversity & inclusion. She specializes in exploring ambiguity & problem spaces and translating user needs into actionable findings, driving impact on strategic business directions. You can follow Michelle and her writing on medium.com/@michlinh. 


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