Taking care of your mental health and wellbeing when carrying out user research

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Throughout my whole adult life I’ve had struggles with depression and anxiety. Whilst these have their obvious impacts and downsides, there is an upside. Throughout the course of various treatments and conversations with doctors and psychiatrists, you are given tools for self reflection, and encouraged to use them. This is an instrumental part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which “focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect your feelings and actions”. This focus helps you to better understand your own behaviours, emotions, and how you might react to certain topics, issues, and events happening to you, or to others. The idea of checking in with yourself, and understanding why you’re feeling a certain way is a way of building your own emotional resilience — the ability to respond to stressful or unexpected situations and crises.

At this point, you might be thinking “What has this got to do with being a user researcher?”.

A key part of being a user researcher requires listening to, advocating for, and understanding other people. This is impossible to do without deploying empathy. We’re constantly putting ourselves in the place of the user, and in doing so, we expose ourselves to their thoughts, feelings, and emotions — which can be both positive and negative. It’s difficult to deploy empathy without making yourself vulnerable, and in making yourself vulnerable, you leave yourself open for the emotions, feelings, and experiences of users to impact your own feelings and emotions.

The emotional toll that user researchers can experience through their work is often compared to that of other caring professions such as social work, nursing, and therapy. The term compassion fatigue, sometimes referred to as the “the cost of caring”, was coined by psychologist Charles Figley in the late 1980’s, and is defined as “the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate”. Another similar term is vicarious trauma, defined as “process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors.”. It’s clear that recurrent and prolonged exposure, typically over numerous rounds of research, has the potential to for spill over into your personal and professional life. Vivianne Castillo explains this best.

Over time, many UX [User experience] Professionals become desensitised to human emotion and experience an acute overdose of feeling; they learn to keep boundaries firmly in place and turn off their emotions. Even when we maintain such a guarded and cautious stance, there are times when contact with our participants penetrates us deeply — sometimes in ways we neither acknowledge nor understand.

When this happens, there are some symptoms that you should be aware of that include, but are not limited to:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Isolating yourself, or withdrawal from colleagues
  • Apathy
  • Low motivation
  • Intrusive thoughts or images

One way in which we are able to build both emotional resilience and intelligence is reflection, particularly in response to challenging topics. This involves the practice of being aware of your emotions and the reasons for them, particularly when you find that your emotions are heightened as a response to something. One tool which can be helpful in these situations are emotion and feeling diagrams. There are many variations of these, but the concept stays the same.


Recognising emotions and feelings and their root is beneficial not only to yourself, but to the users you speak to. These tools can be useful for:

  1. Labelling and identifying
  2. Helping improve self-awareness
  3. Emotional regulation
  4. Communicating with, and understanding others

When carrying out any research activity, it’s important that you don’t do it alone. Having other members of your team either attend the meeting, virtually or in person, can help turn the conversation into a shared one, removing the potential burden of you being the only one speaking to the user, should a difficult topic arise. They don’t need to be active participants in the conversation with the user: you can utilise any additional team members on the call as note-takers or observers, to allow for better reflection and discussion following the session.

Open and transparent communication helps foster a sense of trust, and creates a safe space for the whole team to freely exchange ideas and thoughts. This type of environment allows for honest reflection, and encourages the team to be open about their own wellbeing and mental health.

Taking time (15–45 minutes) before and after sessions allows yourself and other attendees to process the emotional impact of the research and gather your thoughts. Aside from this, it’s important to make sure that you don’t schedule too many sessions in one day. Having too many sessions reduces your ability to process information, and makes you much more susceptible to negative feelings if your research is of a sensitive or emotional nature.

It’s important to take care of yourself holistically, and to understand all of the different elements that feed into your wellbeing. Gallup (a global analyics and advice firm) recently carried out research on understanding employee burnout, and as part of this created a diagram to demonstrate the 5 core elements of wellbeing.


All of these elements are interrelated and interdependent, and when any of these elements are deprived, your own wellbeing takes a toll. It’s important to reflect and understand what helps feed these aspects of your own wellbeing. Whether that be exercising, spending time with friends and family, eating good food, spending time in nature, or practicing mindfulness…all of these activities help to support these elements. User Interviews have made a great infographic resource that gives suggestions how you and your organisation can take steps to support holistic health.


Understanding the different activities that help make us feel fulfilled, and embracing these, gives us the resources to refuel when our own mental wellbeing takes a hit. An important part of facilitating our own self-care and nourishing our wellbeing is understanding how to re-balance ourselves when we find ourself off-centre. In User Interviews’ recent Self-care playbook they list 14 steps that you can take to help find that balance. I’ve included my favourites below, but I recommend checking out the full list.

  1. Learn to identify your personal and professional stressors
  2. Check in with yourself regularly
  3. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
  4. Be curious about criticism
  5. Practice mindfulness
  6. Celebrate wins
  7. Forgive yourself for your own mistakes

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone is different, and that everyone’s version of self-care will be different. For me, self-care looks like knowing and understanding my own limits, stepping away from my screen when I need to, and spending some quiet time building (an ever-growing collection of) Lego sets. If you’re still figuring out what self-care looks like for you, my advice would be that Lego can quickly become an expensive hobby…

I hope that this article has provided some ideas for finding a self-care practice that works for you, and that you’re able to implement this both at home and in the workplace.

I love chatting to people about UX and user research; if you’ve made it this far and would like to connect, you can find me on LinkedIn.

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