- Announcing: War Stories
- Steve’s War Story: It’s All Going To Burn
- Tamara’s War Story: What the Hell? Don’t you knock?
- Tell Us Your War Story
- Vanessa’s War Story: DDoSed in Vegas
- Dan’s War Story: Focus, no matter what!
- Priya’s War Story: Taking empathy to a whole new level
- Tom’s War Story: Go with the flow
- Mary Ann’s War Story: Be Prepared
- Leo’s War Story: No, We Really Meant the User
- Nicolas’ War Story: Do you want me to act?
- Diane’s War Story: Interrupted Interview
- Kelly’s War Story: Pictures are language independent
- Susan’s War Story: The trust dance
- Gavin’s War Story: It’s 4:00 a.m., Do You Know Where Your Ethnographer Is?
- Dan’s War Story: Shanghai Surprise
- Fumiko’s War Story: Goodbye cruel world
- Greg’s War Story: Taking notes, getting detained (sort of)
- Jon’s War Story: Beware of Trap Doors
- George’s War Story: Skyfall (or A View to A Kill)
- Lisa’s War Story: When Rapport Goes Too Far
- Sean’s War Story: Pockets full of cash
- Francoise’s War Story: Black glances cast our way
- Brandon’s War Story – CATastrophe
- Greg’s War Story: Biting off more than I can chew
- Michael’s War Story: The glass is more than half full
- Raffaella’s War Story: Learning to deal with expectations
- Greg’s War Story: Culture shock
- Elaine’s War Story: I thought my client was going to die
- Dennis’s War Story: Negotiating between sympathy and empathy
- Debbie’s War Story: Sometimes Ignorance is Bliss
- Carla’s War Story: A dirty diaper sitting in the mud
- Apala’s War Story: Whose side is the researcher on?
- Jaimes and Aico’s War Story: Sumimasen!
- Elysa’s War Story: Keep The Swiffer On Your Right
- Sharon’s War Story: Broken Windows Theory
- David’s War Story: Footloose
- David’s War Story: Suit yourselves
- Prasad’s War Story: Skin in the game
- Daria’s War Story: Human Thresholds
- Jen’s War Story: Trust your gut, it can save your life!
- Ryan’s War Story: Enthusiasticus Interruptus
- Valerie’s War Story: Rank order
- Rachel’s War Story: Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate
- Cordy’s War Story: A Crisis of Credibility
- Marta’s War Story: On confronting judgement
- Whitney’s War Story: Stories of War
- Kavita’s War Story: Managing money, oh joy!
- Ilona’s War Story: First Stop the Bleeding!
- Elaine’s War Story: They call me Mister
- Tom’s War Story: House Rules
- Alicia’s War Story: Don’t hate on a tinkler
Whitney Hess is the author of Pleasure & Pain, and the founder and principal of Vicarious Partners, an independent consultancy specializing in strategic user experience. She believes empathy builds empires.
I interviewed Holocaust survivors. Four words that still send shivers down my spine. Their stories were meant to shape my research; they ended up shaping me.
It was the project of a lifetime. I was asked to conduct user research for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with web design agency Happy Cog. Together we identified several constituents of the Museum to explore: visitors, students, teachers, scholars, activists, volunteers, donors…and survivors. Survivors of the Holocaust. I would be performing the interviews, crafting personas, and reporting on findings to the Museum’s executive board.
As a rule, when I engage with a research participant, I, Whitney Hess, cease to exist. It is a skill I have honed over many years of conducting research. I don’t get hungry, I don’t get tired, I don’t have to pee. I shed my beliefs and my assumptions and my identity. My only need is to listen. My only purpose is to absorb – with total objectivity.
Would it be possible then for me to objectively study Holocaust survivors? I am a Jew.
At first I told myself that being Jewish somehow qualified me to understand their stories and empathize with their pain. Then I feared that I would get so emotional that I wouldn’t be able to make it through an interview.
I was wrong on both counts.
I had the honor and the privilege of interviewing seven survivors – from Germany, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and Great Britain – all volunteers at the Holocaust Museum in varying capacities. Some interviews were in person at the Museum, others were over the phone. They shared their stories of survival, and they shared their feedback on the website. Both extremes were just as relevant. I listened with reverence and I asked probing questions. I was so busy taking it all in, I didn’t have time to feel anything about it. I was working.
When it came to crafting personas, I started with the teachers and students, moved on to activists and scholars, and eventually I could postpone it no longer – it was time to review my findings from the survivors.
Reading back through my notes and the interview transcripts, I maintained my composure. I kept reminding myself, You have work to do. But in a moment of weakness, I allowed myself to listen to a recording. And then another. Day became night and I was still listening. They recounted the abuse they’d endured, the brutality they’d witnessed, the family they’d lost…it was so raw, so real. I let myself go. I cried, bawled. For what they had overcome, for themselves, for their families, and for me.
In the end, I decided not to create a persona of a survivor, and my teammates and clients understood my reasoning. Their stories were unique; they could not be merged.
Instead I gleaned a few key quotes, to convey the essence of the individuals. What they had to say changed my whole perspective on what we were doing and why we were doing it. Their message had to be heard. I had to share it. I got to share it.
And it changed everything.