4 Habits User Researchers Can Learn From Therapists

Resources & Guides
·
December 8, 2022

Interviewing users is tough.

How do you make them feel comfortable?

How do you move past the surface and get more meaningful answers?

How do you reassure them that everything they say is valuable?

Providing therapy is tougher!

The “users” are your clients now. They are vulnerable in front of you.

They expect that talking to you will help their lives.

The questions we asked earlier still remain, with the stakes turned all the way up to 11.

People have dedicated entire careers to figuring out these questions, leaving us with a large body of literature to consult.

What can user researchers (and product people, and designers, and founders) learn from therapists?

Also, read: What Product-led growth means for product teams

Sections in this article:

Please feel free to skip around and return to this article instead of reading it in one sitting.

  1. The three stages of therapy
  2. Therapists enable clients to explore their thoughts.
  3. Therapists enable clients to reach insights.
  4. Therapists make their clients feel at home.
  5. Therapists are self aware.

The three stages of therapy

Therapy moves through three stages [1].

1. Exploration

This is where the therapist will observe their client, listen to them talk, and help them explore the thoughts and feelings they might be trying to express.

2. Insight

This is where the therapist will try to guide the client to a deeper understanding of their emotions and behavior.

3. Action

This is where the client is encouraged to act upon the insights they’ve reached. The therapist might suggest some steps and strategies to speed things up.

These stages will lead us to the four habits you should steal from therapists.


Habit 1: Enabling clients to explore their thoughts

What is the exploration stage?

Usually the first step in therapy, the exploration stage involves the therapist and the client forming a relationship, the client getting over the initial barrier keeping them from sharing their feelings, and the therapist getting their first chance to guide the client into thinking about their issues.

Rapport building is an important part of exploration.

Where does it fit into the UXR process?

Of course an interview can not yield meaningful results if the user is constantly on the edge. Rapport building and putting the user at ease are important exploration skills that user researchers can adopt.

Additionally, skills of exploration help improve the productivity of interviews, enabling researchers to reach useful insights faster.

There are clear parallels between the aims of therapists during the exploration stage and user researchers during interviews.

Just as therapists want to:

  1. Learn basic information about the client.
  2. Establish a rapport with the client and make them feel comfortable.
  3. Encourage the client to look into what they are feeling.

User Researchers want to:

  1. Get to know the user’s age, experience, interests, etc. to avoid making assumptions about them.
  2. Make the user feel comfortable. It is tough to recount your experience and feelings to a complete stranger. Reassure them that they are talking to a human who cares.
  3. Follow - and not guide - the user’s thought process, nudging them every once in a while to reach a deeper answer than the one they initially offered.

To enable clients to explore their thoughts, therapists have a few skills in their arsenal.

Avoiding interruptions

As long as they are making sense, let your user speak.

Save your interruptions for when they’re done speaking.

Some literature suggests taking this a step further - stay silent for a few seconds after the user’s statements. This gives them the space to share follow up thoughts as well.

Of course, this is applicable when they’re making sense.
If the user has gone off-topic and rambling, interrupt them gently and steer the conversation back to your original concern.

Restatements

Users will often answer in vague and long sentences.
A “restatement” is repeating what they’ve said in a shorter, more concrete way.

There are two benefits to this.
First, restating the user’s sentences more clearly helps build trust. It shows you’ve been paying attention and that their words carry importance. 

Secondly, restatements help you stay on the same page as the user. If the user provided a jumbled, confusing answer to some question, your restatement might be wrong. In that case, they will clarify what they meant and your interview will immediately become more useful.

Open Questions and Probes

If you’ve taken your share of interviews, you know how users can sometimes limit their answers to just a few words. Clients do the same during therapy.

Asking open questions and probing the user is a great way to nudge them to talk more and go beyond surface-level answers. These are different from “closed questions” which are generally asked when trying to learn something specific.

Here’s quick checklist to remember when asking open questions and probes

  • The user will open up if they don’t feel judged! Therapists use a low and soft tone with a slow rate of speech to convey concern and intimacy.
  • “Why” questions don’t help. Instead, ask “what” or “how” questions. Replace “Why didn’t you use the tag view?” with “What kept you from using the tag view?”. People rarely know why they do anything [2].
  • Keep your questions short and simple. Lengthy questions are confusing - cut your questions down to a few words.

Ask one question at a time. Avoid asking “What did you expect from the tag view and did you try it? Did it work the way you expected it to?” Ask one question and let the user answer. Take it from there. You have time.(PS Looppanel has a tag view now and it’s awesome)

Habit 2: Enabling clients to reach insights

Remember the three stages we discussed earlier?

The insight stage falls right after exploration.

What is the insight stage?

The insight stage builds on the foundation of the exploration stage. 

In this stage, therapists help clients work to find deeper patterns and themes influencing their behavior. Their role is more of a coach, teaching the client how to gain insights into their behavior.

Where does it fit into the UXR process?

Some skills that therapists use in the insight stage can be used in interviews directly.

You can teach a user how to find more meaningful answers and help them discuss feedback that goes beyond the surface.

There are clear parallels between the aims of therapists during the insight stage and user researchers during interviews.

Just as therapists want to:

  1. Challenge their clients to make them more aware of their irrational beliefs and patterns.
  2. Gain a deeper understanding of the client and discuss this understanding with them.

User researchers want to:

  1. Highlight and clarify any contradictory answers your user might have shared.
  2. Ensure that your conclusions are in line with what the user has said.

To enable clients to explore their thoughts, therapists have a few skills in their arsenal.

Challenges

“Challenging” a client refers to highlighting discrepancies in what they’ve said. These discrepancies are not to be seen as a client trying to lie. More often, they are a sign of irrational thoughts, belief systems, and biases that might be holding the client back.

Over the course of a user interview, you are bound to come across discrepancies in the user’s answers. See them as a sign of confusion instead of lying and highlight them for the users. 

Challenges in therapy help the client clarify their thought process. Challenges in interviews can be a good way to identify where users get lost or confused in your product. In both cases, a “challenge” can involve direct confrontation, gently highlighting a mismatch between two answers, making a joke to highlight the discrepancy, or even giving the person some space and silence to think through their own answers.

Highlight the discrepancies and try to figure out what caused them - sometimes the cause could be as simple as shabby copywriting.

Interpretation

Often, a therapist would go beyond what a client has explicitly stated and present a new meaning, reason, or explanation for their behaviors, thoughts, or feelings. This technique is called an “interpretation” (psychologists are terrible at naming things).

An interpretation can come in many forms during therapy.

These two forms are directly relevant to user interviews as well:

  1. making connections between seemingly unrelated or isolated sentences
  2. pointing out recurring patterns or themes

You can probably keep an interpretation to yourself and not share it with the user during the interview itself. However, it would be better to share and get their views on it – you might be wrong and wrong interpretations are worse than no interpretations.

HABIT 3: Fostering a facilitative environment

Remember the three stage model?

You can master all the skills necessary for each stage and still turn out to be a terrible therapist. This is because those skills mean little in a vacuum and are just a piece of the larger puzzle.

Here’s the second piece: a facilitative environment. Therapists must strive to help their clients feel understood, safe, and free from judgment.

To enable clients to explore their thoughts and understand their feelings, therapists ensure three conditions in their interactions.

Empathy

Make an effort to understand your users as much as you can, while also bearing in mind that you can never fully understand anyone.

In therapy, as in user research, you are supposed to strive to get the person’s:

  1. thoughts and expressions (cognitive empathy) and their
  2. feelings and emotions (affective empathy).

Compassion

Compassion requires empathy and being open to negative emotions. It goes beyond empathy by actually letting the therapist feel some of the emotions their clients must be going through.

As a user researcher, your user won’t share their sadness unless you terribly botch the interview. The compassion you develop can help you better understand the pain points a user is trying to express.

Collaboration

Therapy is collaborative – user research should be so too! You and your user are taking a chunk of the time you could have spent on Netflix and investing it on this discussion.

While it is not important to be an expert interviewer, you must work hard on helping your user feel comfortable and part of the same team. Users will want to help you out if they know that you’re listening and that their ideas can help improve a product they’ve been using.

HABIT 4: Being Self Aware

Remember the three pieces of the puzzle?

This is the third piece!

The user researcher, much like the therapist, must remain aware of their inner thoughts during their interactions with the user or client. Since interviews and therapy are deeply human endeavors, who you are influences how they go.

Are you too invested in the product’s success? You might discard genuine criticism.

Are you sleepy, exhausted, bored, or just otherwise not “present”? You will not extract all you could have from the interview.

Are you angry during the interview because your mother won’t stop calling and asking if you’ve had lunch even though you’re 29 and have a daughter? Your anger will spill into your assessment.

There are clear parallels between the ways therapists and UXRs should approach self-awareness.

Just as therapists should consider:

  1. What are their biases, issues, strengths, and weaknesses? These will impact how they come across during their session.
  2. How much of their assessment is a result of their experiences vs what the client has told them?
  3. What painful experiences have they been through? This will help them empathize with the client’s pain

User researchers should consider:

  1. What are your assumptions about your users? This will impact where you steer the conversation.
  2. How much of your assessment is a result of your experiences vs what the user has told you?
  3. What other data points do you have on the users? This will help you make sense of some of the more vague feedback you receive during the interview.

To maintain and develop their self-awareness, therapists have a few skills in their arsenal.

Self-reflection

We know how “angsty fourteen year old” this sounds, but self-reflection can be a valuable tool for user researchers. Before jumping headfirst into an interview, take a moment to assess:

  • your preconceived notions about the product
  • your preconceived notions about the user
  • how angry, sad, excited, sleepy, heartbroken, and hungover you are (no judgment 🍻)

If you promise to not make fun of us, we’d also suggest journaling every once in a while as a way to reflect.

Motivation reminders

We know how “hustle culture” it sounds, but we aren’t asking you to read hustle quotes every other hour.

During the interview, try to catch yourself while getting passionate for or against a point the user is making. When you do, remind yourself that you are here to gather their thoughts, not to defend your opinion.

Your motivation should ONLY be to get user inputs.

Supervision

When therapists hatch out of eggs, they can not just start providing therapy independently.

Instead, they work with supervisors who ensure they are doing things right and not letting themselves get in the way of the client’s progress. Interviews are tough and you should get all the help you can.

When all else fails - reach out to someone to help keep your interviews unbiased.

It could be a manager, a mentor, or a coworker. Have them supervise your interviews in real time or provide feedback on recordings.

Also, read: Mentorship, Freelancing, and Personal Branding for UX Professionals

BONUS HABIT

Reading awesome newsletters.

What did Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Carl Rogers, Karen Horney, and Anna Freud all have in common? They subscribed to a biweekly newsletter that delivered AMAZING content relevant to their field straight to their inbox. This newsletter was also non-intrusive and never spammed them.

Fortunately, Looppanel puts out a biweekly newsletter for UX Researchers with AMAZING content, guides, talks with rockstar researchers, and job opportunities.

You’ll need to sign up now. We don’t make the rules.

Citations

  1. Hill, C. E. (2009). Helping skills: Facilitating, exploration, insight, and action (3rd ed.). American Psychological Association.
  2. Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259


Tags

User Research
User Experience
User Needs and Preferences
User-Centered Design
User Personas
User Research Techniques
Observations
Data Analysis
User Journey
Therapists
Share this:

Liked the article? Be the first to know when a new article drops!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Related Articles