How my work as a standardized patient is good training for a career in user research

While I’m looking for my first job in UX design (ideally focusing on user research), I’m working part-time as a standardized patient at a local medical school. If you don’t know what that is, in short, we help medical students practice their people skills. We also check their clinical skills — for example, did they do the steps of an abdominal exam in the right order — but a large part of the job is giving feedback on their interpersonal communication.

If you want more detail, I wrote a magazine article about working as an SP in 2015, during my first stint at the job. Here it is: Playing hurt: Life as a standardized patient (Louisville Magazine).

I chose to return to it recently because I really enjoy working with the students, and I feel like I’m doing some good by helping train future doctors. I also think it’s a good opportunity to practice skills that I’ll need as a user researcher. Here are a few of them:

Avoiding filling silence or giving too much information

As a user researcher, sometimes you have to watch a user struggle and avoid the temptation to jump in and help. Sometimes there’s a lull in the conversation and you have to resist the urge to fill the silence.

The same is true when you’re working as an SP. When I work with students, I have a very specific script that I’m required to stick to. For example, I’ve had a case where I come in with a vague symptom like a headache, and the students have to ask the right questions to get to the right diagnosis. I’m only allowed to give them information that they ask for, nothing else. If they don’t ask about something like a history of high blood pressure, I’m not allowed to tell them.

I’ve seen students that I can tell are struggling so hard to ask the right questions, and all I want to do is break character and give them a hint. But I can’t, since they won’t have those hints with real-world patients.

I’ve also had cases where I play a more difficult patient and I’m NOT, under any circumstances, allowed to provide certain information. For example, if they ask questions about my character’s sex life, I might be only allowed to give shrugs and an “I don’t know” answer. There have been a couple times where students have gotten frustrated and I wanted to give in, but I couldn’t.

I get it that the purpose of user research is never to be tricky or torment anyone, but sometimes you just have to be quiet and let them figure things out on their own.

Getting comfortable with different personalities

Most students I’ve encountered have been delightful people who really want to get something out of our time together. But there are always a few who clearly don’t want to be there, for whatever reason. Maybe they think it’s a waste of time, maybe they’re struggling with other school/life situations, maybe they’re just not a people person. I still have to work with, and give feedback to, those students in a respectful manner. In the post-encounter feedback I can’t be like, “Hey, you’re a real asshole,” even though I might want to. I can, however, provide constructive criticism about their lack of empathy. (More on that in a minute.)

I’ve never had an unpleasant situation with user interviews or testing, but I suspect that some encounters could be similar. Maybe you’re dealing with a user who’s providing feedback about their frustration with a product, or maybe you’re trying to recruit people for intercept interviews. Either way, you still have to act in a professional, productive manner.

Empathy, empathy, empathy

I’ve heard some people say it’s reached annoying buzzword status in the UX community, but empathy is essential if we’re going to make anything worth using, right?

As SPs, one of the biggest areas we give feedback in is students’ ability to show empathy. That can mean different things for different encounters. Sometimes, we’re looking for their ability to help us as we sit up or lie down for an exam. Sometimes it might mean them asking us how we feel about a tough life situation, or breaking bad news in a sensitive way. Many times, it means helping them understand why they need to speak in plain terms, not medical jargon. But in all cases, we’re evaluating their ability to treat us like a human, not like an inconvenience or a set of symptoms.

Being empathetic is naturally one of my strengths, which is why I’m drawn to work in UX, but it never hurts to be consistently reminded of it in my work as an SP.

For more about standardized patients:

Note: the featured image for this post is an illustration by Ian Klarer that ran alongside my article about working as an SP. To see it in its entirety, check out the August 2015 issue. 

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