User Experience, Context and Psychotherapy

By Alex In User Experience

No doubt the title of this post is already going to raise some eyebrows. UX… therapy??? As a former aspiring psychologist I can’t help but ask the question, what’s the relationship between the two? I even once worked with someone who described her role as an ‘Interface Therapist’. I wish I’d started my UX career thinking in that way.

UX designers design user interfaces right? Well I’m not so sure that’s all we do or that the two are so far off. Psychotherapy deals with people as systems in a context, the context of their lives. There’s no real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the therapists office per se. Context is king.

When we, as UXers think about how we find solutions, especially when we’re working with a system or taking a systems approach to our work (which we should always be doing) and especially when we consider the reason we use the methods and tools that help build a vision of the final product as a system the lines between the two start to blur.

Contextual Design

I’m especially thinking about the contextual approach to UX as described by Karen Holzblatt, the Storytelling approach described by Whitney Quenberry and Kevin Brooks or even the Mental Model approach synonymous with Indie Young.

Each of these approaches to design methodology have something in common, they try and uncover the underlying narrative that gives a system it’s raison de etre, its meaning for the end users of that system. In a sense that’s the backbone of all UCD approaches to design problems. They look at what users want to achieve and seeks coherence therein. Coherence that is, as a system that fits the life, context and needs of the user unobtrusively.

Psychotherapy in like manner doesn’t dogmatically prescribe a lifestyle. Through a narrative with a therapist the patient uncovers insights (solutions) that help them live their lives a little better. But, what’s most striking to me is that there is so much crossover in approach and perspective. Psychodynamic approaches to the human mind look at the structural relations between the different parts of the human mind. Contextual inquiries, discussions of the problems that people face and finding ways within a human beings current context and cultural milieu are used to help them tell a better story for themselves.

The finer point is that UCD approaches and psychotherapy both rely on a narrative style that exposes a way of thinking and interacting with the world and of finding approaches to those ‘work styles’ that facilitate the life of someone. This is achieved when some new system is realized that helps a human being better exist within their existing context. This is often done once we understand the sub-text to the design problem just like a psychotherapist will want to understand the same sub-text in his or her sessions with us.

The Interaction Design Foundation has a great article on Contextual Design written by Karen Holzblatt. In the article the central tenets as well as tools of the contextual approach are described. The picture that’s presented in the course of the article is an approach that builds a vision of a new artifact (product) that fits in holistically with someone’s life.

Personally I believe that even that view is narrow and that we can think about the role of context on a cultural plane as well; that the products we work don’t just effect individuals but, can become part of how we operate as groups of people. One only needs to think of how crowd sourcing applications and collaborative digital environments have generated innovation on a massive scale to understand the point.

The Contextual Process

However, most of our work starts with the individual, the end-user, the contextual design approach is no different. The main steps that Karen describes are:

  • Understanding what matters to the users
  • The development of new ideas
  • Redesigning
  • Iterating design solutions with users

This post is concerned mainly with phase 1 as that’s where I see some of the greatest crossover with the therapeutic approach. For Karen this begins with contextual enquiry and contextual inquiry can’t take place without speaking to the very people that we design for. It’s the part of the process in which we, as drivers of solutions to real world problems speak to people and build a model of the problems they are trying to solve or have to work around, as Karen describes it:

contextual interviewer observes users as they work and inquires into the users’ actions as they unfold to understand their motivations and strategy. The interviewer and user, through discussion, develop a shared interpretation of the work. It is like an active inquiry into the user’s world 

This results in an understanding that allows ‘Work Modelling’. Work Modelling has several features that give a coherent picture of the end-user, their environment and the problems that we are designing to solve for. Important features of the work model for us as practitioners include:

The Culture Model

  • The Flow Model. This is a model of what coordination needs to take place for work to get done.
  • The Cultural Model. This describes the constraints on a person trying to achieve something.
  • The Sequence Model. This describes the actual steps a person will go through.
  • Artifact Model. This is a picture of the artifacts produced by the individual.

Together these give a holistic account of the work and thought of a person trying to achieve a goal. These, as we know are often consolidated in Personas, Archetypes, Scenarios and eventually Use Cases but, can also be represented in Experience maps as a consolidated artifact as well.

As tools for us as designers these are essential ingredients to ensure that we’re creating products that will fit into the lives of our user, the ultimate goal of much of the work that we do. They form a good outline for what we might more commonly call ‘User Requirements’.

An important feature of this approach is that it is constructive, requires narrative and cooperation as well as active ideation and insight generation with the end-user, much like therapy.

However, I think there’s more to it than that. The methods described in this post weren’t devised in a vacuum. Contextual inquiry has anthropological routes, sequence modelling and flow diagramming have routes in computation that go back to the early days behaviorism in psychology and the concept of the Persona comes from Young. All of these are derived from methods in the social sciences.

Developing Design Concepts

Over the course of my practice as a UX practitioner I have started to use the idea of metaphors to consolidate the artifacts and methods used in the contextual approach whilst staying true to the UCD philosophy. A metaphor for me can be either a workflow subtext or the description of a concept a system uses to realize the user’s metaphor.

Like most agencies I’ve broken the process into three stages; Discover, Define, Design. However, what I’ve tried to focus on that’s different is how needs and user stories can become metaphors and system concepts that make a system coherent; both with its self and for the end-user. Whilst of course maintaining the business context, cause let’s not forget that most of our work is driven, at least at inception, by money.

The process is summarized in the diagram above and breaks down into a set of stages that rely on each other to collect and then synthesize requirements into a product with a strong product specification that can be iterated on.

The Discovery Phase


UX Discovery Phase

The discovery phase has three roles: First, to understand the business context of design, second to understand the context of the user and third, establish the parameters for the system to be defined in the definition phase.

Its main features are its outputs. Those are the business needs and user needs. Nothing radical here but, the process outlined above allows for fairly quick iteration and summary. Most importantly an understanding of a user’s needs allow us to develop stories that fulfill those needs (stories that will ultimately be translated into use cases).

The Definition Phase

UX Definition Phase

The definition phase, taken as a whole is an articulation of a system concept. It is a natural extension to discovery. Each step in the definition phase is an answer to questions raised during discovery. For example Scenarios answer what the system is in a narrative, use cases address what users can do and give structural parameters.

These frame an organizational model that says how a system is structured and where in a system certain actions can be completed. The system that is defined in this phase of activities is the system concept.

The Design Phase

UX Design Phase

The goal of the design phase is to articulate a system as clearly as is needed so that the product can be built. It is also designed to allow test plans to be created for further iteration to a system.

The term UX Designer has always bothered me and I’ve tended to prefer to use the term UX Architect for the simple reason that design is a loaded term. Additionally we work with systems not pages or individual elements. Much like therapists it’s the context, the coherence and the overall structure as it relates to a person that we as professionals should be concerned with. So yes, Experience Design IS a lot like psychotherapy (without the sex… joke for those of you who’ve read Freud).

Further Reading:

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