Katharine Carr
UX Professional

Research Blog

Putting the User on the Couch: Psychology and User Research Techniques

There are many similarities between the field of psychology and user research, most importantly that they both place the human experience at the center of their work. The techniques and tools used in both fields are similar too. User interviews are one research method that parallel the patient-therapist relationship: two people sit down to explore an issue through conversation, and the therapist must quickly create a connection with the patient based on authenticity and trust. If they are able to build this connection, the therapist can access more of the patient’s insights. In the same way, a user interview requires to strangers to build trust quickly so the researcher can gather the participant’s insights. Techniques used in counseling can also be used in user interviews, specifically building empathy, practicing active listening, and uncovering participant insights and stories.

During a user interview, quickly building an authentic connection is tricky but necessary for quality insights. Client-centered therapy teaches that the way to make participants feel safe is through being empathetic, non-judgemental, and genuine. Building empathy for the patient and seeing the world through their perspective communicates “that her/his perspective has value and she/he is accepted” (Steven, n.d.-a, p. 4). Feeling accepted and safe from judgement is extremely important in these conversations, so that the participant feels free to share without worrying about how they are viewed. People are more likely to feel safe with someone who seems genuine and real. Therapists convey this by taking the role of learner, not expert; they do not pretend to know what is best or have all the answers. Perceiving the therapist as genuine keeps the patient from wondering what he or she really thinks. With a therapist that they trust, and who listens without interrupting, the patient feels validated and confident, and the listener is able to get more meaningful responses (Flowers, 2013). Active listening is another valuable tool user researchers can gain from therapists.

Listening itself is pretty straight forward, but can take a long time to learn to do well. Psychology calls this ‘attending’ or giving full attention to the speaker. From the user experience field, Goodwin advises to “listen without the motor running” (Goodwin, 2009, p.60), meaning that it is better to give full attention to the speaker than to be composing the next question while they are still talking. She writes, “once the interviewee finishes, you may have a brief pause in conversation while you take  a moment to frame your next question ...taking time to absorb what they’re saying” (Goodwin, 2009, p.60). Showing that the therapist has listened carefully can reinforce the participant’s feelings of respect and validation.

Most of the techniques around listening actually involve ways to get users to talk more. Reflective listening is a technique developed by the Psychologist Carl Rogers, and involves listening with one’s full attention and then paraphrasing back (Flowers, 2013). This lets the therapist confirm that they understood, and often prompts the participant to add more detail. Similarly, echo-ing is a paraphrasing technique of just repeating back shorter sentences that the participant says but with a questioning tone at the end. This technique can be used if the researcher is not sure what to say or if they can avoid asking a leading question. Incomplete questions can also be used to get the participant to say more. The researcher starts a question and then trails off, letting the participant finish the sentence or question (Tofflová, 2018). Listening is also central to the therapist’s main goal: uncovering stories and connections.

Goodwin makes this comparison between user research and doctor-patient communication: “listening to user frustrations is the product designer’s equivalent of asking a patient where it hurts” (Goodwin, 2009, p.139). While collecting a laundry list of user pain points is not helpful, both therapy and user interviews are about guiding a conversation to cover new insights. Therapists often guide their clients toward finding new meaning in their lives by connecting the past, present and future (Arnold, 2014). One way they do this is through stories. Since the therapist perspective is limited, they have to rely on the patient to share stories that demonstrate some insight. Stories shed light on the patient’s motivations, frustrations and goals. Through the Cognitive Behavior Model, therapists guide the patient through the examination of an experience in three stages: A) an activating event, B) their beliefs and evaluations about the event and C) the consequences of the event (Steven, n.d.-b). This segmented approach to an experience might be interesting to try with a user when they are communicating frustrations with a product. It is important to understand their stories in context (the activating event), to understand where there are causal relationships (evaluations about the event), and learning how users react to or solve a frustration with a product can be quite enlightening (the consequences or outcomes).

The fundamental difference between psychology and user research is that while therapy hopes to improve the patient’s life through repeat sessions, user research hopes to improve the patient’s life through a product. The main focus on the person’s perceptions and experiences is what is the same about these two fields. But, psychology and tools used by therapists can certainly be valuable to incorporate when doing user interviews, to help build trust and authentic connections, listen and understand, and guide them to share stories and uncover insights.


Arnold, L. (2014). Being a UXer: It’s A Lot Like Being a Therapist. User Experience Magazine, 14(2). Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/being-a-uxer/

Flowers, E. (2013, April 7). The UX Psychologist. Retrieved from http://www.helloerik.com/the-ux-psychologist

Goodwin, K. (2009). Designing for the Digital Age. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Steven, J.C. (n.d.-a). Client-Centered or Rogerian Counseling. Retrieved from https://www.basic-counseling-skills.com/client-centered.html

Steven, J.C. (n.d.-b). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (ABC Model). Retrieved from https://www.basic-counseling-skills.com/cognitivebehavioral.html

Tofflová, A. (2018, Aug 2). How to talk to your users (like a pro). [UX Collective] Retrieved from https://uxdesign.cc/how-to-talk-to-your-users-like-a-pro-dc77ef19d2e3

Katharine Carr