the Human experience



the Human experience



mental health to user experience

How exactly does Psychology relate to User Experience and why did I make the transition from helping people in one context to designing for them in another. With some explanation, the connection between the two areas will become clear, and highlight how it strengthens my research and design.    

mental health to user experience

How exactly does Psychology relate to User Experience and why did I make the transition from helping people in one context to designing for them in another. With some explanation, the connection between the two areas will become clear, and highlight how it strengthens my research and design.    

Certain basic principles of cognitive psychology provide grounding for interaction design. These include mental models, mapping, interface metaphors, and affordances.
— Don Norman, the design of everyday things.

What I did

During my time in Seattle, I obtained my Masters in Psychology, and worked within the mental health world in various non-profit and government agencies. I connected with multiple populations of people, all with different needs, challenges, and strengths. Along the way, my roles grew in responsibility: Therapist, Child Protective Services Investigator & Forensic Interviewer.  

Seattle: Homeless "tent city."

Seattle: Homeless "tent city."

On a daily basis, I observed people in various settings, including their own natural home and work environments, to better understand what they were experiencing to develop a plan that would help improve their lives. My various positions allowed me to work with medical professionals as well as family to provide education concerning mental health conditions, treatment options and community resources.  This included performing assessments to diagnose as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, for mental health needs, medical needs, and crisis plans.

Clinical Interviewing

I am a Masters level trained mental health professional that has 20 years experience conducting clinical and therapeutic interviews directly to promote the well being of the client in front of me. The purposes of clinical interviews were therapeutic in nature. My goal being to establish a better understanding of my clients by capturing their perception of their world, evaluate their emotional and behavioral adjustment, and develop a means to improve their adjustment with change.

During the course of my career in the mental health world, I was trained in individual, group and family counseling. I studied and practiced many types of therapies during the course of my career.

  • Behavioral therapies, which focus on cognitions and behaviors

  • Psychoanalytical and psychodynamic therapies, which focus on the unconscious relationship patterns that evolved from childhood
  • Humanistic therapies, which focus on self-development in the 'here and now'
  • Arts therapies, which use creative arts within the therapeutic process
  • Family/couple counseling, which look to resolve systemic issues.

Forensic interviewing

Unlike, the clinical interview, the primary goal of the forensic interview is to gain “facts” for the child protection investigation. I was specially trained and conducted hundreds of Forensic interviews for the judicial system that were governed by rules of evidence. During a forensic interview I maintained a neutral, objective stance with the goal to facilitate the child’s recall of previous events they witnessed and/or experienced.

Psychological testing

I utilized testing in a formal ways to measure traits, feelings, beliefs and abilities that could lead to a persons problems or gain a measure of general well being such as a person's personality. The intent was to gain a deeper, more complete understanding of the problem. A psychological test did not mean that the problem was particularly serious, difficult to understand or complex. It just meant I would need additional information before designing the best approach to address the problem.

Often, like with UX, an appointment for psychological testing requires several hours of time to complete questionnaires or engage in face-to-face paper and pencil testing and are looking for the same standards.

  • Who will conduct the assessment?
  • What is being measured?
  • How long will testing take
  • What materials should the individual bring to the test? (e.g., glasses, other records)
  • Who will have access to the results? (e.g., stakeholders, research teams)
  • How will the tests be taken and recorded? (e.g., verbal responses, paper and pencil, computer)
  • How much will this cost? (who will cover this?)

Neuropsychological Assessment

When disease affects the brain, the functions normally controlled by the central nervous system, including thinking, emotions and behavior, begin to break down. With Neuropsychological testing the brain is evaluated by putting it to work and measuring specific abilities like memory, language, perceptual ability, problem-solving and motor and sensory functions.

Neuropsychological tests could take 6-8 hours and involved a broad range of activities.  I would begin a neuropsychological examination with a clinical interview to enable myself to become more familiar with the client's problems and to elicit any signs and symptoms of psychiatric or neurological illnesses. After the interview was completed, the formal testing would begin. I would use a flexible battery of tests that are selected based on the patient's specific problem. For example, an elderly patient with suspected Alzheimer's disease might get a slightly different group of tests than a young patient after a closed head injury.

The evaluation typically includes measures of intellectual functioning and some assessment of emotional/personality functioning as well as several domains of cognitive (thinking) ability that are assessed:

  • Memory
  • Language
  • Spatial and perceptual
  • Attention and concentration
  • Problem-solving
  • Motor and sensory abilities

Small ideas have huge victories when needs are met:

the state of affairs:

I worked for a social service agency in Seattle focused on assisting the mentally ill homeless population.  It  was an opportunity to find human solutions with  the least amount of services available.  This is the story of a client named Oscar, that I had the opportunity to work with.


the situation:

Oscar spent years living on the street, due to his mental illness and had recently moved into housing. He was independent in obtaining his services and basic needs. He shopped, picked up his medication and for a job, assisted other clients  in the shelter.  Oscar utilized the bus as his means of transportation.  He enjoyed riding the bus because it allowed him to be near others.  He often stated it was difficult being in a home alone after years on the street, he said at times the silence was “maddening.” 

the problem:

The problem arose due to Oscar’s verbal responses to his auditory hallucinations. The speaking out loud to the hallucinations would sometimes disturb/scare others on the bus.  Oscar had no known assaultive background and no criminal history.  Folks on the bus took notice, and after a few complaints Oscar was ejected from the bus and banned.

the decompensation:

This created a chain reaction.  Oscar began to miss picking up his medication and miss his job in the shelter. All realms of support began to crumble and Oscar’s quality of life began to deteriorate quickly. He was arrested for attempting to take the bus. He began to sleep on the street again, and unable to meet his basic needs. 

The root of this issue was Oscar’s responses to his Auditory hallucinations. I was familiar with his behavior from observing him in the past.

the solution:

It clicked while riding the bus myself one day. Everyone has a cellphone on the bus. Just blend in. I found Oscar an old cell phone with the goal of helping condition him to put the cell to his ear when responding to his auditory hallucinations. This  assisted Oscar with "looking normal" by taking unwanted attention away. The phone did not work, in the classical sense, but once we worked on his inside voice no one knew the difference. 

Just another day:

Oscar became accustomed to using his phone, and we went to the Metro offices together to appeal his ejection from metro.  Oscar needed this public transportation to maintain his independence, his mental health and overall support system. In the end he won the appeal and has been happily riding the bus since.

what this brings to UX

This fostering of human potential became more difficult over time as policies or procedures changed, a vote defunded another budget, or caseloads slowly changed the person in front of me into a number. After a move to Austin, I began to research how I could be more powerful in helping the community around me.  I made the decision to move forward with a career change and began studying User Experience Design (UX).  I see UX as a human-human interaction science, and how humans relate to one another is through cognition or how we think. Personality, intelligence, emotion, it’s all based in the higher order cognition that makes every person so unique and unpredictable. It was a logical next step in my growth and career.

Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are doing research.
— Carl G. Jung

The goal of Design thinking is practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result.  By considering both present and future conditions and parameters of the problem, alternative solutions may be explored simultaneously.  This is true Human Centered design rooted in empathy, where you try to see from the perspective of a user of a given design or product.   As a practicing counselor and therapist empathy is something I trained to sharpen and constantly practiced and improved upon. Even considering empathy as a valuable tool gets you halfway there, as you are acknowledging the legitimacy that is user experience, the users perception is more important than our own.

Problem Solving

Being able to think quickly and offer useful solutions to accommodate multiple variations and desires of the client while satisfying their users is a skill overlapping psychology and UX. There is never just one way to solve a problem. Every problem has multiple solutions. I enjoyed working together to be an inventive solver of people problems, and watch folks have innovative ideas and solutions on their own.


Whether in a therapy session or designing for our users, identifying with them through empathy only makes us better at what we do by stepping outside our mindset and into that of another. Whenever I sincerely empathized with my clients and their particular situation, like assisting an Alzheimer patient with independence, or removing a child from a home, it became evident that I cared about them and wanted to help. By demonstrating empathy, I gained a wealth of information that improved the therapeutic process. This naturally translates to UX as showing we care about how the user interacts with the products.

decifer motivations

Psychology is the study of people’s behavior and motivations for those behaviors. We need to understand the “whys” to design for the behaviors we are trying to elicit, all while making the user feel good about their experience so that they repeat these behaviors.


To conduct a therapeutic session or make a proper psychological assessment, use of active listening skills helps gain insight into someone’s motivations. In UX, listening and assessing what the users are saying (or not saying) is one of the most important skills used to assess their behaviors and motivations for performing certain actions.


As with listening, being able to observe behavior provides such important clues into what a person’s motivations are. Staying out of the users’ way and allowing them to figure things out is a very difficult thing to do, but necessary to see if our design is doing what it was intended to. The only way to do this is to observe and allow the natural process to occur without our influence confounding the results. The plan of action that needed to be taken became clear, just by watching someone engage in daily activities. Staying out of the users’ way and allowing them to figure things out is a very difficult thing to do, but necessary to see if the design is doing what it was intended to.

My work experience has given me the ability to establish rapport quickly, build trust, interact with and relate to individuals on all levels. Any time there is a plan of action, I have the ability to change course when things are not working as planned. This is true both in a therapeutic setting as well as when designing. Life is ever changing, as should our work.