Sekai Farai: Anthropologist, User Researcher, and Revolutionary
Hey everyone, and welcome to our Creator bio series! There are some really incredible leaders offering valuable insights on Learners, and we want to give you the tour of their greatest talks. This week’s all-star creator: Anthropologist, design researcher, and user researcher Sekai Farai!
Name: Sekai Farai
About: Sekai is an anthropologist with 10+ years of experience leading research for product and design.
She’s a leader in understanding the power dynamics that exist in research between the researcher and the researched. One of her theses is that empathy is a tool used inappropriately in research and in business; Empathy used in order to take advantage is not empathy at all.
- Ethnographic research
- Experimental methodology
- Empathy (and its limits) in UX Research
Sekai is one of those people who’s deeply thoughtful in every word she says, and every word is worth paying attention to. Her words uncover the power we have hiding in plain sight—and hold us accountable for choosing not to use it.
Let’s take a look at some of Sekai’s work.
P.S., every talk Sekai gives is FULL of powerful statements and quotable ideas. Picking just a few to highlight was almost impossible, so I hope you give her talks a listen for yourself!
The Impossibility and Irrelevance of Empathy
What it’s about: Sekai’s first talk with us was at UXRConf Anywhere 2020, and it was an absolute hit with UX researchers. Sekai asks how the presumption that we’re equally capable of deploying empathy might handicap what’s possible for a user researcher or designer. Even if we are truly empathetic people, that doesn’t mean the output of our organizations is driven by empathy.
What you’ll take away: You’ll gain a better understanding of the function and limits of empathy in research. This includes a deep dive into what Sekai calls empathetic endurance. Empathetic endurance is the ability to continue acting with empathy after the user leaves the room.
You’ll also get a glimpse into what the field of research might look like if we consider the impossibility of empathy.
“We’ve barely begun to discover—as a discipline—how to deploy user research to design the world we want to live in.”
“When s**t hits the fan, and we discover a new way that tech has caused preventable and obscene harm, we call the engineers in the room and we ask them—appropriately so—’why did you build this?’ Then we call upon the designer and ask, ‘how could you make this?’ But let’s not forget the researchers. Let’s call on the empathizing researchers, bring them to the front and hold them to account for the harm that their technologies have caused. Ask them: ‘where did the empathy go’?
Trending in User Research
From Representation to Saturation
What it’s about: How and why have user researchers—and society overall—failed to recognize marginalized perspectives? Sekai outlines how research can make black lives matter, and not just black lives: any lives that you, as a researcher, care about and recognize as unheard.
What you’ll take away: In this episode, Sekai challenges you—as a user researcher or designer—to go further than simple representation of marginalized voices. Find out exactly what could be gained by centralizing the perspectives of the unheard.
“Research and design has failed to take seriously their ability to design new worlds; new worlds for people who are not meaningfully represented.
We need to simply look at who we’re conducting research with. Be honest, and acknowledge that we’re conducting research with participants whose views are largely shaped through the experience of whiteness or the allegiance to it.”
Call to Action
What it’s about: This is the first episode of Sekai’s 3-part series on empathy for user researchers and designers. Sekai challenges you to consider whether empathy is really possible in your organization (or any organization).
What you’ll take away: Watching this talk, you may discover that practicing empathy is much, much harder than you thought. In fact, it’s an ongoing struggle that Sekai lets us in on. You’ll certainly come away with a better understanding of the forces that work against empathy in your practice.
I definitely encourage you to listen for yourself. As with most of Sekai’s work, there are simply too many perfect quotes to choose from.
“Empathy is a trap that the business is happy to keep researchers and designers in—while the executive decisions being made in product, engineering, operations and marketing are driven by growth. Growth at all costs. Growth at every cost. Growth on growth on growth.”
“All of the empathy that you think you’re deploying and applying on the front end of the design process is filtered out with the decision-making on the backend. In most of the businesses we work in, there is no empathetic imperative.”
Thanks for reading! We’d really appreciate you sharing this blog using the buttons below! If you want to discover more trailblazing user researchers and designers, check out 5 Stories From The Design and UX Research Frontiers.