Researchers Reflect: The Value of Human Connection in Research

This blog post is part of Researchers Reflect, a series where we embark on the journey of a design researcher at the Innovation Hub. Each post will spotlight a different design researcher’s experience, stories, and learning moments throughout the course of their research. 

Written by Shankeri Vijayakumar, UTQAP Research Coordinator  

Shankeri is standing outside, wearing a yellow top with a white blazer.

The relationship between researchers and participants is a unique one. Think about it, it’s an opportunity to hear stories and gain insight through an exchange of personal answers to deep questions. There is quite no other interaction like it and it’s part of what makes qualitative research such a powerful tool in design thinking. At the Innovation Hub, these in-depth qualitative research methods we follow have allowed me to connect with a diverse number of students united over a passion to enhance campus life at UofT.  

Acknowledging Varied Student Experiences

Icon of a person with connecting circles reaching outwards.

When I joined the Innovation Hub, I was excited to apply design thinking using ethnographic and empathy-based research methodologies when interviewing students during our feedback sessions. I was not sure what to expect during these sessions and wondered to what extent students are willing to openly share their student experience with students they’ve never met before. I was pleasantly surprised to observe students carrying the conversation and eagerly adding onto other students’ responses. What surprised me the most was the candor and vulnerability students demonstrated when sharing their experiences.  

As a student researcher myself, this was a very powerful moment for me. The design thinking principles we use allow students to guide the conversation with us to organically share stories and observations about their student experience. I quickly learned how cathartic this can be and how for some students, these sessions were one of the few spaces they could openly talk about their experiences with peers they can relate with. This affirmed to me the capability of feedback sessions, not only to aid our research in understanding student experiences, but for students to feel heard.  

Leading with empathy is vital to researching human experiences. For me, leading with empathy in interviews and observations allows me to honour students’ lived experiences as their expertise. In our feedback sessions, we bring together students with varied experiences of student life. Acknowledging each unique experience lets students know that their stories and experiences are valid and feeling validated allows people to feel comfortable in sharing their voice. In our feedback sessions, this allows us to collaborate with students to continue to dive deeper into their experiences. 

Interconnected people with a heart in the middle.

Human Connection to Innovation

In our research at the Innovation Hub, we continually engage with wicked problems. This involves managing uncertainty in the research process and what the data is telling us. The authentic human experiences and connections we unearth during our research process has taught me how important this is for co-creating with students. The things that can be achieved with empathy and meaningful human connection are remarkably powerful. The human connections we make during the research process have taught me that by centering student voices in our work, we can learn about the hopes, fears, and needs that underlie each student’s experience. This then allows us to better understand students’ stories and how to approach enhancing student experiences at U of T. 

Through my time at the Innovation Hub, I’ve connected with students and explored student experiences through projects like Academic Integrity, Colleges, and Rotman Commerce. Currently, as a Research Coordinator for the UTQAP projects, I support teams conducting research on student experiences in various academic units at U of T.  I’m grateful and fortunate to be able to connect with students and help create a difference at U of T through empathetic research and storytelling at the Innovation Hub and now lead student researchers to do the same. 

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