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Design like the user is always right

Design like the user is always right

Dating from the 1950s, psychologist Carl Rogers’ person–centred therapy (PCT) makes for interesting reading in the customer–centric world we find ourselves in today. Rogers’ innovative approach ran counter to the somewhat remote and detached forms of psychotherapy prevalent at the time.

Specifically, PCT contains a number of principles that designers would do well to adopt. The approach features three core conditions, each of them with direct relevance to the creation of positive user experiences.

One of Roger’s core conditions for PCT is unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR is “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”. Substitute person for user and you have a pretty good foundation for user–centred design.

Another condition is congruence; “the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade”. It might be argued this mirrors the shift away from marketing at customers, dropping both the corporate veneer and broadcast communication style, and instead listening to their needs.

User–centred design cherry picks from any number of sources, not least behavioural psychology; so Rogers’ principles come across as rather apt. The essence of user–centred design is appreciating users as humans with needs, goals and limited time on their hands in which to achieve them. And why do we need to humanise the the user? In order to practice a basic human quality called empathy – coincidentally another one of Rogers’ core conditions.

User–centred design often pays lip service to the idea of empathy as a design skill. It certainly sounds worthy and is difficult to argue against, which gifts designers the moral high ground in any debate. But recurring questions about empathy follow swiftly afterwards: how can we put to work? How do we make it practical?

 Using empathy, we understand an experience through another’s eyes, and in doing so create something that works not only for the client, the designer or the developer, but the person who needs to use whatever it is gets spat out at the other end of the process. My own take has always been that deploying empathy means identifying with others enough to create something which, no matter how small, makes their life easier.

It strikes me that UPR has huge relevance. While we are identifying the motivations and needs of others, are we not required to show a positive regard for whatever these might be? If we are attempting to connect users with their goals then it falls on us also to treat the pursuit of those goals and associated needs with respect.

During usability testing we are always at pains to emphasise to participants that we’re testing the website or software – not them. In short, they can’t make a mistake. Interestingly one of the key design principles that applies to interfaces is forgiveness, where users must be allowed to recover from errors in an intuitive fashion, placing the onus on the designer to ensure that users never blame themselves or, to put it crudely, be made to feel stupid if the website or app lets them down. 

So positive regard appears to go with the territory. If we are then to deliver on the promise of a positive user experience for all our desired audiences, surely the element of respect also needs to be unconditional.

For UX designers, behavioural psychology is one of many areas we often find ourselves straying into, searching for meaning. Universal concepts like unconditional positive regard can throw new light on our work and further validate our approach whenever we doubt ourselves.

Anything which reminds us that we are flawed humans attempting to design things for other humans – nothing more, nothing less – is a good thing.


By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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