As most of you know, I’m constantly learning elements of therapy & counseling and can’t help but relate them to our work as UX Designers. My most recent lesson came from a discussion around Freud’s countertransference. My friend brought the term up to me and since I had never heard it before, I asked him to describe to me what it means, and how he uses it in his work. Transference is, in my short, less informed point of view, when a patient redirects the feelings they have for someone or something to their therapist. Thus countertransference would be when a therapist redirects feelings that they have for someone or something on to the patient. My friend explained that this is one way that he uses to understand his patients better, by relating them to other patients or people that he’s met or worked with before. For example, if the therapist had feelings of unease or distrust for a past patient and then finds himself redirecting those same feelings to a current patient, he can get a better understanding of who the current patient is just by recalling details of the past patient’s character. This is not to say that he basis all of his diagnosis on past patients, but simply uses countertransference as a way to know patients better, especially when they first start seeing him.
Whew… So what does this very short lesson in psychoanalytics have to do with UX Design? Well the first term that came to my mind was empathy. We always say that we should have empathy for our users; as in the capability to share their emotions and feelings. This is different than transferring our feelings, but I believe they are related.
When I started to reflect on this topic further I realized that what most drew me in was the idea of taking feelings and thoughts that I’ve attached to one experience and transferring them to another. This is something that we, as UXDs, try to facilitate. That is, getting our users to transfer feelings that they have for tangible products, for people they love, for things or experiences that bring them joy, to the experiences or products that we are trying to create. This, my friends, has truly helped me to clarify my role as an UXD.
Now, the next question I asked myself is, is there a way for me to use countertransference to better understand my user just like the therapist does with his patients? More specifically, is there a way for me to transfer the empathy I’ve had for a past user (maybe one I’ve seen in testing or have interviewed?) on to the users that I’m currently designing for? For example, let’s say, in the past, I interviewed some users in order to better understand their usage of the iPhone. During these sessions, I developed a certain amount of empathy for these users. Can I say that when I design future iPhone applications or designs that I can redirect this empathy in order to better inform my designs? Well it doesn’t really work like that. I don’t know that you can purposefully transfer empathy for one user to another. It’s more of an observation thing. Meaning really being aware of when you’re transferring empathy, and then analyzing why and if it makes sense to do so. Making these types of connections in the brain will enable you to really understand how you understand the user. This is an introspective process, however, it is one that can help us to better understand from an emotional point of view who we are designing for and what their needs are.
The moral: the closer you are to filling your user’s shoes, the better you’ll be able to design for them. Practicing noticing when you are transferring emotions and empathy from past users or experiences on to current ones will help you to know yourself as well as your user better, and eventually close the gap between you and your user; thereby making your designs more user centric, and therefore just plain old better.