Being a UXer: It’s A Lot Like Being a Therapist

Do you listen to people’s ideas all day long and carefully navigate the area between being too critical and ignoring potential issues? Do you take large complex problems and, through in-depth analysis, try to make sense of them and pull out some kind of recommendations?

A tablet and desktop computer attend counseling. One says He doesn't even respond when I talk to him

UX Therapy Session

You are a therapist…you just don’t know it. Your title is probably something more like user experience (UX) designer or user researcher. But in reality, you do much of the same work that a therapist does, just in a different realm.

The term psychotherapy comes from the Greek words psyche, meaning breath, soul, or mind, and therapeia, meaning the treatment of illness or disability, and also having a healing power or quality. Although you may not think that your work is healing others, let me explain how the skills you use in your UX job is a lot like being a therapist.

When I first got started in the UX field, I thought that it was going to be vastly different from my previous career as a psychotherapist, but straight away I started noticing similarities. First off, a lot of counseling skills are required when working with people, no matter what the field is. You have to manage a lot of different personalities, including your own, as you navigate interpersonal dynamics full of potential potholes for misunderstanding, as well as opportunities for connection.

In fact, you may get better at your craft by using some counseling skills that I have learned in my years as a therapist. Hopefully you will be able to apply these skills to your UX toolbox to increase positive experiences for clients and coworkers alike.

Here are three case study examples where counseling skills may help solve typical UX research challenges.

Table 1: Counseling skills that apply to user experience activities.
UX Research Activity Therapy Modality Counseling Skills
Focus group
Participatory design
Family therapy
Group therapy
Understanding personal motivations and interpersonal dynamics
Encouraging engagement
In-depth interviews
Usability testing
Individual therapy Strength-based, “tell me more”
Uncovering the story—connecting past, present, and future
Truth only if you see it yourself
Come to the conclusion on their own—indirectly exposed to new ways of thinking
Motivational interviewing
Design sessions Child therapy Art therapy
Play therapy
Ethnographic studies Home visits
Milieu therapy

Counseling Skills from
 Family and Group Therap

Running a focus group or participatory design activity is very similar to facilitating a family or group therapy session. First, you need to be aware of personal motivations. This will help you make sure that everyone in the group gets their needs met and that all members stay engaged in the process—a crucial element for success in UX research. Both activities require a delicate balance of being a leader and providing an environment in which individuals feel safe to express themselves. Other similarities between UX teams and therapy groups include setting ground rules, reading body language, assessing underlying motivations of behavior, awareness of interpersonal dynamics and diagnosing and treating problems.

UX Case Study #1

Presenting Problem: Dave is very excited to share his new ideas about an interface challenge. He has been active on the design email chains and responds quickly. For the meeting today, he has brought drawings and looks anxious as the conversation gets stuck on an unrelated business requirement issue. You see Dave looking at the clock—there are only ten minutes left in the meeting. You realize the team risks losing Dave’s engagement in the project. Just as in family therapy, if one member feels unheard and stops sharing his or her thoughts, the family will end up losing a vital member of their team.

Diagnosis: Love-my-idea-and-I-hope-other-people-love-it-too anxiety

Treatment Intervention: One way to save the situation will be to remind team members of the time and suggest an action plan for the business requirements conversation (who is going to follow-up, answer outstanding questions at the next meeting, etc.). You then ask Dave to share some of his design ideas. Dave perks up and starts sharing quickly, his anxiety shifting to excitement. These are similar emotions in terms of physiological arousal.

Counseling Skills 
from Individual Therapy

Most people have some idea of what individual therapy is about, although what is portrayed in movies and on TV is often distorted as weird—perhaps even inappropriate—conversations between two people in a fancy office with lots of books. There may be books, of course, but in reality, most individual therapy sessions can be thought of as strategy meetings. Two people sit down typically for one hour once a week to have an ongoing conversation. The therapist guides the client toward finding meaning in her life; a new “life design” so to speak. As therapists and UXers, we recognize that external (interface) issues are often indicators of internal (architecture) issues that must be addressed in order to achieve our goals.

UX Case Study #2

Presenting Problem: Maya has been tasked with making her company’s website “better…pretty…like the competitor’s, only better,” —a list generated by the stakeholders during a strategy meeting last week. Maya plays around with some different layouts but ends up with a website that looks similar to the original. People often do this in their lives. They set out to make themselves “better” without ever defining what that would even look like, let alone identifying the underlying reasons or meaning for the changes needed to be made.

Diagnosis: Brand existential/identity problem

Treatment Intervention: A lot of therapy is focused on getting people to tell their stories. By connecting the past, present, and future, you are able to get a better idea of where people came from, where they are now, and where they are going. These elements are also vital to brand development and website design. Rather than focusing on the vague goal of making the website “better,” I would encourage Maya to take this issue back to the stakeholders for further definition of how she should connect the past and present website to the future site, and obtain clarity on what the stakeholders’ vision for the website/brand really is. These types of conversations may allow Maya to walk away with a picture of what “better” would actually look like, and something that she can actually design and build.

Counseling Skills
 from Child Therapy

In graduate school, I had an amazing professor, Jennifer Gross, who taught me much of what I would need to know about working with children and families. What I learned was that to work with a child, you need to enter her world and play. Play. It seemed too simple. To connect with children, a therapist needs to see the world through the child’s eyes and watch as she interacts with her world.

It is the same idea for ethnographic studies, as well as participatory design sessions. The researchers will need to observe the organic process of people acting within their environments and not interfere. It is important to let a person remain in the creative process flow uninterrupted, mainly because the parts of the brain controlling creativity and reasoning are separate.

UX Case Study #3

Presenting Problem: Diane has been sitting at her desk for a week trying to figure out how to solve an issue with the current user interface. She has conducted usability tests, kept copious amounts of notes, written a report for stakeholders, and has a design presentation coming up. She has no idea what to suggest in terms of solutions.

Diagnosis: Stuck-in-problem-focused-thinking depression

Treatment Intervention: Diane needs help getting out of her head and back into her creative flow. She needs to shift to solution-focused thinking from problem-focused thinking. Solutions require creativity. Diane will need to get up from her desk and do something like write for ten minutes straight, draw on a whiteboard, or play with another product. Play will help loosen the creative part of the brain, and that is when the best solutions come: not when we are racking our brains for a brilliant answer. To get unstuck, ask, “What would an eight-year-old do?”

A Final Thought

We all create external experiences (actions) in an attempt to influence internal experiences (emotions). Everyone in life is trying to do two things: increase pleasure and reduce pain. That’s it. Happiness, joy, and fun are the greatest healers of all—of people and of websites. The central purpose of user-centered design is to increase pleasure and reduce pain for users. Adding these counseling skills and strategies to your toolbox may be one way to help achieve this goal.

Arnold, L. (2014). Being a UXer: It’s A Lot Like Being a Therapist. User Experience Magazine, 14(2).
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