Empathy, everywhere, all at once

By Alabama Nash, March 2023

Jigsaw’s designer goes undercover at the AQR empathy conference.

In the 5 ½ years I’ve been at Jigsaw Research as their presentation graphic designer, I’ve worked on countless conference papers, in collaboration with many different researchers and clients. It’s a very rare occasion indeed when I’m able to attend an event and see my designs in their intended environment. The reason for this is mainly because I’m not a researcher and not required there (more’s the pity.)

Therefore, when the opportunity arose to attend the AQR’s (Association for Qualitative Research) seminar titled ‘Empathy: Brilliant or Bulls**t’, I jumped at the chance. I had designed the PowerPoint slides that my colleague, the formidable Peter Totman would be presenting and was eager to see how my work would be received by the audience.

Learning about empathy and how to harness it can, of course translate to the research industry and, by proxy, my designs, right? Empathy can surely aid in the design process; the more you can help an audience relate to your work; the more effective the message.

The time to come clean: I had made myself available specifically for this event for the principle reason: the incredible line up of speakers. This is what I LOVE about working in research; you’d be hard pushed to share a space with such a broad catalogue of interesting people, from such varied backgrounds – let alone be privy to their expertise anywhere else.

The night before the event I prepped by taking a test to see where I landed on the empathy scale*. I was certain I’d get top marks and was surprised to see I rated only moderately. I hoped my attendance at the AQR the next day could use as a booster to what I consider a fundamental building block of humanity.

Getty image

Photo: Getty images

‘You want to be the dumbest person in the room’ – words to live by from Madonna, whom I have  considered a heavyweight in the empathy stakes ever since I grew up watching her work tirelessly trying to quell the swirling public panic about HIV and AIDs in the 1980s.

I’d like to think it’s not usually so apparent, so quickly, where I lay on this scale of intellect, as it was at the AQR that day; as well as the doctors, ethnographers, film makers and award winners, I found myself in the midst of the largest number of qualitative researchers I’ve ever seen in one room. The world’s most loquacious people, the only moments of reticence occurring when they were listening intently to the speaker at hand.

First up, a thought provoking piece from Oli & Lucy from Ipsos ‘Obesity: An empathy blind spot’. At times bleak, they used their expertise plus respondent videos to really confront the general public’s biases against overweight people head on. One finding particularly stayed with me – that confirmed overweight people actually enjoyed the pandemic more, due to not having to be around judgmental people or live up to society’s expectations. I found it really, really sad. Had I ever contributed to someone feeling like that, even unintentionally?

The next section of the day consisted of 3 short presentations from different experts pertaining to empathy skills and how we can employ that as researchers (and designers!).

Psychotherapist and strategist – Paul Arnold started his piece by stating he had no need for PowerPoint slides to immerse people in his content (Turns out he was right but I‘d be out of a job if everyone follows his lead!) A remarkable talk where empathy was defined not as a skill set, but a mindset…

Becky Rowe, owner and Head of Research at Revealing Reality gave a (no surprise here) revealing presentation on social research, the message being that individual respondents, as well as a myriad of other factors have to recognise empathy comes with bias.

‘Empathy on film‘ was the title of ethnographer Dr P Khan‘s offering. He described empathy as a form of ‘currency’; traded to gain trust to access audiences you may have otherwise had trouble reaching. Dr Khan‘s myriad of experience has seen him work extensively with subjects that are notoriously hard to connect with: disenfranchised people like the homeless population, plus whistle-blowers, even working undercover filming terrorist cells. I found myself leaning forward in my seat hoping I would soak up his expertise via osmosis.

During the break I began to have, in part, a crisis of confidence. At what point could showing empathy, focused on getting the research participant to divulge information that was of an acutely personal nature, cross a line? Did any of these respondents ever regret lifting a veil into their innermost sanctums? Did they ever feel manipulated by someone, who, let’s face it, could never truly know what it was like to live as them?

I started ruminating on this to the point where I started to worry that this was, in fact, the Actually Quite Reckless seminar. There’d been quite a bit mentioned on the ‘Us and Them’ dynamic – and I realised that as a non-researcher, I was maybe more in the latter camp than the former. In today’s climate, can the U & T school of thought ever be used in a responsible, positive way? I reassured myself this was all just hyperbole and had a biscuit. After all, the research industry is consistently held to the highest code ethically.

On to the 3rd and closing part of the day, with the title ‘Research and the empathy delusion’, which, annoyingly for me, made use of a really beautiful bunch of slides to match Stephen Lacey’s convincing presentation. Lacey hails from cultural insight company The Outsiders, that states on its website: ‘When brands said people wanted to create dreams, we said that dreams are dead.’ My sort of sentiment! A sobering piece that compared the quest for empathy at times, to a religion or idolatrous movement, aligning much more with the bulls**t side of the scale than all previous speakers. Stephen touched on my break time musings, i.e. empathy can be ‘artificial closeness, more for our benefit as researchers than the subject’

Last to the lectern was my esteemed colleague, Peter Totman, self identified ‘veteran qual researcher’, who’s talk ‘Empathy: The research industry’s ultimate aspiration’ was of the opinion that empathy is a mixed blessing out there in the world but a crucial trait in a qual researcher in terms of moderator skills and insight generation – but let’s not get above ourselves and start talking about empathy as a qual superpower!


Selfishly, I spent most of this section desperately scanning the audience’s faces for small crumbs of appreciation for my graphics that Peter was clicking through at an irritatingly fast rate. Peter always brings great humour alongside his expertise, still, personally I am taking some credit for the laughs he got when arriving at the concluding slide; I had photoshopped images of Peter on Joe Biden’s body, standing next to Obama, as well as more pedestrian scenes of him heading up a group depth. Was it my own cognitive bias that told myself my designs had slightly boosted the laughter in the room, and by doing that, perhaps improved engagement, even, dare I say it, empathy toward Peter?

I suppose the answer to that is as subjective as empathy itself; there’s no right way of displaying empathy, or how one reacts to it. Can I use my new found knowledge to my benefit – when designing? Is this article brilliant or bullsh**t? I’m not sure, but I know I’ll be first in line for a ticket to the next AQR conference.

* https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/results/empathy

Written by Alabama