Deeper reflections

What counselling techniques can add to user experience research

Researchers rarely have the luxury of multiple sessions with the same participant and so there is a risk of understanding individuals at a superficial level. The transfer of counsellors’ techniques into research has a strong potential to enable deeper and quicker elicitation of people’s experiences.

The reason I say this is that previously I worked with homeless individuals with substance use problems where I used motivational interviewing, a goal-orientated form of counselling, to facilitate reflection upon existing behaviour and enable positive change. Since the skills underlying this approach are very powerful at deeply dissecting people’s motivations that guide their actions, they also prove useful in user experience research.

Substance misuse clients often attend counselling sessions begrudgingly as motivation is low. Over time, trust can be built by being respectful, non-judgmental and always genuine, but there are simple methods to initiate mutual affinity in the precarious first meetings. To establish rapport quickly, it is important for clients to know that they have the counsellor’s full attention, which can be achieved through sensitivity to eye contact, body positioning and tone.

Researchers and counsellors alike should aim to say as little as possible, as these silences allow the client to explore their thoughts and direct the interview towards the issues which are important to them.

Wary of professionals from a lifetime of being passed through institutions, clients often begin sessions defensively and provide terse responses. To avoid this, open questions can be employed to encourage elaboration and increase the momentum of conversations. Another technique involves saying nothing at all; our reflex is to fill ‘awkward silences’ so when the person finishes speaking it seems natural to ask another question. Researchers and counsellors alike should aim to say as little as possible, as these silences allow the client to explore their thoughts and direct the interview towards the issues which are important to them. Therefore, it is essential that researchers create an atmosphere where these silences feel comfortable and that the participant does not feel pressured to answer immediately.

‘Scaling questions’ can also help to elicit deeper thinking. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where one is the worst you have ever felt and ten is the best, where would you put your mood today?” The answer is largely irrelevant, but the follow up question requires more in-depth reflections, e.g. “why did you say 3 rather than 0 or 1?” This technique can be employed in user-centred design research to qualify participant responses in quantitative data collection.

When clients make illogical statements it is important to encourage them to come to the realisation of the illogicality of their utterance themselves, as this is most likely to lead to behaviour change. If they say, “I can’t stop drinking because then I couldn’t hang out with my friends”, the counsellor can repeat this back to them stating it as a fact rather than a question. This technique is called reflective listening and it involves repeating the client’s exact words to encourage them to ‘hear’ their own words. Within research, participants sometimes say what they believe the researcher wants to hear, and so this technique could help extract the truth.

‘Miracle questions’ have been found to be powerful with depressed clients who struggle to see beyond their current situation. For instance, a question such as “If I wave my magic wand over you tonight while you sleep and these problems disappear, how would your life be different in the morning?” can enable clients to think freely without being restrained by deep-seated fears, which provides an opportunity to shift thinking towards potential change. The utilisation of this ‘creative thinking’ method in a research setting enables conceptualisation of truly powerful solutions. Steve Jobs claimed that “people don’t know what they want until you show them”, but by encouraging people to dream up (often unconventional) ideas, more user-centric technology solutions that really fit into people’s lives can be generated.

Counselling methods are currently being under utilised in user experience research. The adoption of these techniques can help elicit rich data about end users even within limiting timeframes. This is a call to use them more – forewarned is forearmed!

Mindset reminder

  • Crafting questions carefully then speaking as little as possible encourages elaboration and deeper thinking.
  • Repeating back statements and encouraging people to dream gets to the heart of what people feel and want.


Bakker, J. M., Bannink, F. P. and Macdonald, A. (2010) "Solution-focused psychiatry". Psychiatric Bulletin, Vol. 34, pp. 297-300.
Miller, W. R. (1983) "Motivational Interviewing with Problem Drinkers". Behavioral Psychotherapy, Vol. 11, pp.147-72.
McCabe, R., & Priebe, S. (2004) "The Therapeutic Relationship in the Treatment of Severe Mental Illness: A Review of Methods and Findings". International Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 50, no. 2, pp. 115-128.

Lucie Gallagher