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3 techniques to build empathy with research participants

August 24, 2020 | 4 min read

By Kelechi Amakoh

Before you embark on that research project, build empathy into the process; here are expert techniques for interviewing, journey mapping and photovoice

Pictured above: Presenters of the Researcher Academy webinar How to build empathy in research webinar (clockwise from top left): Susie Donnelly, PhD, Alica May (moderator); Brenda Reginatto, and Sunetra Bane. Read a summary and watch the webinar below. (Photo by Alica May, Elsevier)

Whether you’re in academia, industry or government, understanding people’s needs is germane to getting the best results. It leads to increased problem-solving capacity, creativity and improved critical thinking. As a researcher, industry professional or policymaker, building empathy is an invaluable skill to develop.

Researcher Academy’s new webinar recording(opens in new tab/window) shows how researchers can build empathy with research participants. This module featured three experts in the field of empathetic research:

The webinar focused on what empathy is, the importance of defining a good research question at the start of the process, and how to use three different methods to build empathy with research participants: interviewing, journey mapping and photovoice.

According to Reginatto, empathetic practice in research is gaining traction because “a lot of people now are recognizing that this ability to see and feel the world from someone else's perspective can actually help you achieve better outcomes.”

At the core of achieving empathy in research is coming up with a clear research question. As Reginatto explained:

A research question that is clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable will essentially provide the focus and the purpose of your research.

Based on a clear research question, the right research method can be deployed to build empathy with the research participants. Here are the three methods discussed by the presenters during the webinar:

Brenda Reginatto

1. Hone your interviewing technique.

In-depth interviewing is the most flexible method for empathetic practice in research. Through this method, researchers can understand the participant’s workflow, motivations, feelings, process and priorities. As Reginatto explained, a properly conducted in-depth interview can be a good way of building empathy with research participants. “Interview is only as good as the interviewer’s ability to elicit good insights, and this takes a lot of practice,” she said.

Most importantly, a researcher must always define the focus of the interview, ask specific questions, and avoid priming or asking research participants leading questions.

2. Use journey mapping.

Timelines. Experience maps. Journey maps. This process goes by many names, and it complements the in-depth interview method. As Bane highlighted, journey maps help a researcher “walk in a user's shoes.” She said journey mapping is all about “following (the user) from phase to phase with the associated pain points and sentiments that they might feel along the way.”

In a typical journey map, there is an actor, a scenario, phases along the journey and the actions, emotions and mindsets of the actor.

Sunetra Bane

On the flipside, Bane added, journey mapping is difficult to use as a stand-alone technique. It is best used in complement with other methods: “You can use them on your own if you're trying to capture things from primary or secondary research, but in an ideal state, have a facilitated conversation with a user to help them reflect on their journey.” That will help you gain the most empathy, she explained.

Also, you may want to complete the journey map with them or have them complete the journey map and you then participate in an interview or an observation session.

3. Consider the photovoice method.

In the photovoice method(opens in new tab/window), participants express their ideas through photography. They are basically seen as co-creators and collaborators of the research process. As Dr. Donnelly explained: “Photovoice studies typically involves a small group of participants taking photographs of their lives or their lived experience and then (sharing) these images with key stakeholders.” These stakeholders could be policymakers, researchers, people in industry or the wider community.

Susie Donnelly, PhD

“The technique is often used with marginalized groups and groups that don't often share their experience (or) who are often not in positions of power,” she said, adding that it's been widely used in health research and policy.

This technique can help resolve the imbalance in the researcher-participant relationship. On the other hand, it can be time consuming and present ethical and moral dilemmas as well as technical issues.

Watch the webinar

To learn more, watch the Researcher Academy module How to build empathy in research(opens in new tab/window)


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Kelechi Amakoh

Marketing, communications and digital content

Researcher Academy