Usability testing: a therapeutic touch

Usability testing, playtesting, and therapeutic listening.

A few weeks ago, I saw that tweet and retweeted it with a note about how that’s also true of usability testing. Which makes sense: in both settings, a creator is trying to understand how other people use a thing. But it also exposes something that they have in common with psychotherapy.

For a long time, when coworkers tell me I’m good at moderating usability testing sessions, I’ve shrugged off the compliments with “I’ve had a lot of therapy.” And I couldn’t totally articulate what one had to do with the other: something about listening, and the way good therapists have listened to me?

But Rob’s comments rang a bell, because of that short list of details. How many times have I flailed through trying to talk about something that was tearing me apart inside? How many times have I done the opposite of what was good for me to make it better?

And therapists — the good ones — don’t always ask “why?” head on. The ones who’ve helped me the most have to some extent let me go out on my limb for a while but also asked small questions.

  • When does that happen?
  • How do you feel when X?
  • What did you want to happen?

So much of that has sunk into my professional practice, especially in usability testing. My strength as a tester is a certain willingness to sit with the user in their discomfort and to just ask little gentle questions to keep them talking. Don’t make them explain why it doesn’t work or what they would do given a different option.

When I’m in therapy, it’s my job to make the changes, with a helping hand from my therapist. After all, I’m the one who got myself here. So eventually I need to figure out why it hurts and try things to make it better.

But it’s not a user’s job to figure out any of that. They didn’t create the problems that caused the pain. Just let them talk through what hurts. It’s on us to do the work afterwards.

Author: Elaine Nelson

Elaine Nelson was directionless with an English degree in the late 90s and then: GODDAMN INTERNET. In her current gig, she wrangles content and content management systems, but her last job was Webmaster, so she's dabbled in all sorts of web work. She's an editor at The Interconnected, previously published in The Pastry Box, and once had a poem published in an anthology of GenX writing, when that was the big new thing.