What I Bring To UX

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  • What I Bring to UX

How does one end up in UX after counseling delinquent girls and brain injured individuals? This question is one I am asked frequently once people find out the somewhat unorthodox route I took towards my career in UX. With some explanation, the connection between the two areas becomes much clearer and there is greater understanding for how my background in psychology has laid the groundwork for a career in UX.

Others Who Have Followed A Similar Path

It is difficult to think of the connection between psychology and UX without thinking of Donald Norman, as he is the person who set the stage for incorporating aspects of Cognitive Psychology within Interaction Design, one area of User Experience.

Certain basic principles of cognitive psychology provide grounding for interaction design. These include mental models, mapping, interface metaphors, and affordances. Many of these are laid out in Donald Norman’s influential book The Design of Everyday Things.

from Wikipedia

Susan Weischenk, “The Brain Lady” also comes from a background in psychology. She has written books, including Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?, online articles such as “The Psychologist’s View of UX Design” and has her own blog “What Makes Them Click” where she applies psychology to understanding people for better design.

What I Did

So, how exactly does Psychology relate to User Experience in the practical sense and why did I make the transition from helping people in one context to designing for them in the other? After earning my Masters Degree from Columbia University, Teachers College, I left New York City and moved back to Philadelphia where I worked briefly with juvenile delinquent girls, between the ages of 9 and 13 years old, living in a group home.  With a great mentor and supervisor, I learned how to provide the specific kind of counseling that these girls needed. Lurking beneath the “tough” girls who often threatened others with violence were artists, poets, and overall creative souls. The tough girl behavior was a defense mechanism and how they survived in their world. The girls learned to trust me and share their more tender side. Skills that I learned and started becoming comfortable with during my training in graduate school such as active listening, observation, empathy, and collaboration, I focused on and improved in this setting as well as in my next job. (For more on what dealing with delinquents can teach you about UX, see Brett Lutchman’s post on that very experience). My other job, and one I held for many years, was as an outpatient case manager and clinician in the Drucker Brain Injury Center’s Community Re-Entry Program at MossRehab Hospital. I managed care, therapies and provided counseling. These clients had transitioned from an inpatient stay and were ready to return to career, school, or activity pattern based on their prognosis and level of injury. Frequent collaborative meetings were held to discuss treatment plans and make changes as necessary. 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 and their specific difficulties to develop a plan that would help improve their lives. These are the same approaches I bring to my work as a UX designer.

How I Moved Into UX

After the birth of my first child, I needed to find a career that offered more flexibility; one that did not take as much emotional energy and allowed me to work part-time. Working with a brain injured population was one of the most rewarding, yet difficult experiences I have ever had in my life, so the decision to leave did not come easily. I worked with incredibly smart, talented people from different disciplines, within a collaborative environment, much like the team I currently work with as a UX Designer. As I searched options, I decided that web design could be a fun and flexible career. I began taking classes at Penn State Abington for website design.I learned C++, Javascript, Flash, HTML, User Interface design, and usability (among other classes). Once I finished that program, I began to design and develop websites for small businesses. I learned more about user experience, an area related to what I was doing with web design, but involving what I had learned and practiced in the field of psychology. I realized that the skills I had used in my “other life” in Psychology were so aligned with what is practiced in UX that it was a very natural fit.

What I Brought With Me to UX

Ability to understand people’s motivations

Psychology is the study of people’s behavior. Behind that behavior are motivations why someone is doing what they are doing. UX is very similar. We need to understand the “why’s” 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 understand behaviors that help make our product useful to our clients and their users, we need to conduct research. My background conducting research almost daily in graduate school helped me ease into this part of user experience.

Problem Solving

There is never just one way to solve a problem. Every problem has multiple solutions. 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. I had a brain injured client who revealed that following her brain injury, her partner began to abuse her. Helping her to develop a variety of options, quickly was important. While the solutions I am expected to come up with in UX are not life-threatening, they can help improve the interactions with a client’s product.


This skill is one of the most important to learn in life, and oh, so hard for many of us. To make a proper psychological assessment, use of active listening skills helps gain insight into someone’s motivations. Graduate programs in psychology provide a great deal of training and practice in the use of active listening, indicating the level of importance it brings to assessments and therapy. So too, in UX, listening and assessing what our 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. Evaluations of incoming brain injured clients allowed me to practice this, as it was solely based on observation. The plan of action that needed to be taken became clear, just by watching someone engage in daily activities, such as trying (and often failing) to cook from a written recipe.

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.

Written and oral communication skills

The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is another skill where there is overlap between Psychology and User Experience. This enables an atmosphere of trust and respect to be created which helps get approval from clients concerning design recommendations that are made. The main difference between the two is in the mode of communication. Where I mostly wrote daily notes and reports in Psychology, I now design wireframes with annotations, prototypes, sketches, personas, and storyboarding to explain my process and thinking.


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, whether a teen girl trying to protect what she believed to rightfully belong to her or a brain injured person who could not remember a conversation he had the night before, 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 our products helps to improve how they interact with our products.

Whenever I sincerely empathized with my clients and their particular situation, whether a teen girl trying to protect what she believed to rightfully belong to her or a brain injured person who could not remember a conversation he had the night before, it became evident that I cared about them and wanted to help.


Probably one of the most enjoyable aspects has been the collaborative process, both on a transdisciplinary team of therapists and working as the user experience designer on a team with designers, developers, product managers and marketers. There is nothing like many individuals expressing themselves (much like a really large, loud family) in the design process to make it fun while coming up with the best solutions for the users.


Any time there is a plan of action, there needs to be 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.

Looking to Make the Move?

With an open mind and a great deal of willingness to learn new skills and improve existing ones, transitioning from Psychology to UX can be smooth. My best advice is to network, find a mentor, participate in local groups, attend conferences and read. No matter what discipline you may be coming from, think about the tasks you performed in a generalized way and how they may transition to the field of UX. —- Brain image CC-by-NC from labguest

Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci

Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci is an independent User Experience Designer in the Philadelphia, PA area. In addition to designing enjoyable experiences, her passions include running in her vibram five fingers, practicing yoga, and her two sons.

6 comments on this article

  1. Love to hear about other people like me from psych now being leaders in the field of UX.

  2. Pingback: What I Bring to UX From … Psychology Johnny Holland – It's all … | Social Fobi - Det Du Behöver Veta

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, Matthew. I would love to hear more about how you made the transition to UX from psychology.

  4. Very interesting article Lori. I host a psychology podcast and I interviewed Susan Weischenk on her use of psychology in webdesign:


    I wonder if either or both Lori and Matt would be interested in getting in touch with me. Perhaps we could do an episode on how students who are learning psychology can use those skills in a computer-oriented career. Feel free to get in touch if interested.


  5. Sveta on

    Great posting, Lori.

    Michael – regarding podcasts. As one of 48 millions of deaf and hard of hearing people, I would like to let you know that not all can hear or access information aurally only. Even people with perfect hearing cannot access audio if they have broken earphones, need to mute sound, are in noisy environments, have hard time interpreting information aurally and prefer to read, speak other languages than English, etc. Therefore, to improve user experience for more people, it’s highly advised to post podcasts along with transcripts. Thanks.

  6. Smriti on

    Its wonderful to hear you. I am also a cognitive psychologist working as UX Designer. Reading your article has has given me confidence for my work.