Weeknotes #6 — Racism in user research

Emma Parnell
4 min readNov 1, 2021


Trigger warning: This piece discusses racism and the effect of racist comments.

Last week my colleagues and I experienced racism during user research. I’d like to share this story as my weeknote this week.

We were running a depth interview and my colleague asked a follow up question to a participant halfway through the interview. The participants response to this question contained racist comments. Neither my colleague or I knew what to do.

I wasn’t sure if I could behave according to how I would personally choose to, or not. I was acutely aware I was representing an organisation and that the participant was being paid for the session. Two dynamics I admit I wasn’t sure how to navigate on the spot.

At the time we moved on and continued the session without making reference to the incident. I wanted to call out the participants’ comments but I felt unsure what I could/couldn’t do as a contractor representing a new organisation I’ve only been part of for eight weeks.

After the session, the company I’m working for responded quickly with a range of practical steps they are going to take off the back of this incident. This includes disclaimers on consent forms, guidance for researchers and a response back to the participant – which we helped to write.

It was reassuring to know that the company would have supported us closing down the session — something I considered at the time but didn’t feel comfortable to action.

The Research Ops team tell me they have never had this happen before. Considering the prevalence of racism and unconscious bias in our society I’m surprised by this. It makes me wonder how many other people out there have experienced this and not reported it.

I’m also curious about what processes organisations have in place to ensure research teams are equipped to deal with situations like this and feel supported to report them ,and, if organisations are doing anything to reduce the chance of racism occurring during research.

Another aspect of the experience that I wanted to share was the difference in reaction between colleagues. I am a white woman. I was running the research. My colleague, Clarissa, is a black woman and she was observing. Various other people supported us following the incident. All of these people were white.

Clarissa and I had discussions throughout and I am sharing, with her permission, her thoughts on the matter:

This situation was awkward for me but not unexpected. It definitely threw me off as you never truly expect to hear those comments. However I wasn’t surprised by them because so many people have prejudices against certain races and in this day and age they are a lot more vocal about it, which is disgusting but it happens.

I would say, in my personal life, I try to not take on everyone‘s views as it can be emotionally draining. My initial response to the situation was a lot calmer than my other colleagues, who are all white, because they haven’t had to experience that throughout their life. I wouldn’t say there is a tolerance to it but you pick and choose your battles as those situations tell you more about who that person is rather than anything to do with yourself.

If this was a conversation between friends or colleagues I would approach it differently. In this space I was unaware of what the best approach was. It makes me question, are organisations doing enough to support colleagues in these spaces and do people know they are fully supported?

This reaction was in stark contrast to the shocked and angry reaction of many of the white people around us. While everyone involved approached the situation from a position of support and good will, I felt it important to highlight this difference.

That’s all for this week folks. No three learnings. Just one important experience with a lot of learnings attached.

Addition: Please read these follow up learnings.

Correction: As a white woman I observed racism, I did not experience it. I would also like to acknowledge that my white privilege affords me the ability to discuss this openly without harm.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.