The Gaps, Crap and Gumption Traps in Creative Work
Scott Berkun's Personal Insights on the Experience of User Experience Professionals

Client-Centered Therapy, Student-Centered Learning and User-Centered Design


I recently finished Carl Rogers' 1961 book, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's Guide to Psychotherapy, in which the renowned psychologist describes his approach to client-centered therapeutic relationships. Rogers makes a compelling case for extending his approach to cultivating relationships with his clients to all personal and professional relationships, including those between parents and children, managers and employees, and teachers and students. I'm currently teaching a senior-level undergraduate course on human-computer interaction (HCI), and believe that Rogers' approach is also well suited to relationships cultivated in the practice of user-centered design (UCD), which constitutes one of our primary lenses for the course.

Rogers states his guiding question in the second chapter of the book:

How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?

He goes on to describe three conditions that characterize his approach to therapeutic relationships (and all relationships):

  • Transparency or congruence: "I have found that the more I can be genuine in the relationship, the more helpful it will be ... rather than presenting an outward facade ... It is only by providing the genuine reality which is in me, that the other person can successfully seek the reality in him."
  • Acceptance: "I find that the more acceptance and liking I feel toward this individual, the more I will be creating a relationship which he can use. By acceptance I mean a warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth - of value no matter what his condition, his behavior or his feelings."
  • Deep empathic understanding: "I also find that the relationship is significant to the extent that I feel a continuing desire to understand - a sensitive empathy with each of the client's feelings and communications as they seem to him at the moment. Acceptance does not mean much until it involves understanding. It is only as I understand the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to you, or so weak, or so sentimental, or so bizarre - it is only as I see them as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience."

Other characteristics of a facilitative relationship include "attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect" or "unconditional positive regard", a recognition of personal boundaries and the separateness of the other person, an allowance for the other person to be utterly free to be himself or herself, and a willingness to see things from the other's perspective and to step into the other person's private world "so completely that I lose all desire to judge or evaluate it". Rogers believed that each person already has the potential solutions to their own problems somewhere within them, and so the goal of the therapist is to be a "midwife to a new personality", creating a safe container within which that internal knowledge can be discovered and applied by the client. This approach is in sharp contrast to the more traditional authoritarian approach to psychotherapy - and many other health care fields - wherein an enlightened therapist diagnoses problems and prescribes solutions for the unenlightened client.

Rogers applies these conditions to many other types of relationships, but of primary importance to me (in my current context) is the application to learner-centered education. In Rogers' view, the teacher should embody the characteristics above, and provide resources relevant to the domain of study (as well as being a "resource-finder"). Students are then allowed to use these resources however they see fit to discover, appropriate and apply the knowledge that they believe will be most relevant to them.

When Rogers taught a course, he would show up the first day of class with stacks of papers and tapes (e.g., of recorded therapy sessions), introduce himself, invite students to introduce themselves - if they felt so inclined - and then wait for them to structure the learning process in which they would participate throughout the course. He did not provide a syllabus, assign homework or readings, nor give any tests. This unorthodox approach sometimes entailed several awkward sessions at the outset, during which students would demand or implore him to impose structure, but he would kindly and resolutely refuse to do so, and they would eventually take the initiative.

Rogers, a rigorous empiricist, reported on some early findings about the gains realized by students who participate in student-centered educational processes: greater personal adjustment, self-initiated extra-curricular learning, creativity and self-responsibility. He was also a radical reformer - or, at least, an advocate of radical rethinking - as can be seen in a 1952 essay on Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, in which he espouses doing away with teaching, examinations, grades, credits, degrees and even the exposition of conclusions.


Others have written far more extensively - and eruditely - about Rogers' approach to student-centered learning, and I've recently encountered a number of other inspired and inspiring resources that are aligned with this approach, including Emily Hanford's provocative American RadioWorks program on Don't Lecture Me, Cathy Davidson's bold experiment with Crowdsourcing Grading, and Howard Rheingold's evocatively named Peeragogy Handbook Project. While I feel a strong sense of alignment with Rogers' principles (and those articulated by others), I don't have the gumption to fully embrace his radically unstructured approach to student-centered learning in my own teaching practice, however I will strive to iteratively incorporate as many of the principles of learner-centered education as I can.

I want to conclude this post with a few thoughts about the connections between Rogers' perspective and the principles of User-Centered Design, a paradigm which prioritizes users over technologies, and places human needs, wants, skills and experiences at the center of the design process. A definition of user-centered design at the Usability First web site highlights the parallels with Rogers' thinking:

User-Centered Design (UCD) is the process of designing a tool, such as a website’s or application’s user interface, from the perspective of how it will be understood and used by a human user. Rather than requiring users to adapt their attitudes and behaviors in order to learn and use a system, a system can be designed to support its intended users’ existing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as they relate to the tasks that the system is being designed to support.

Like Rogers, user-centered design emphasizes rigorous empiricism, offering a variety of methods for observing, measuring and evaluating the effects of different potential design elements on the user experience. UCD also involves iterative design and experimentation, very much in keeping with the serial nature of client-centered psychotherapy sessions and the punctuated equilibrium that I believe characterizes the process of unfolding revelations. UCD methods work best, I think, when its practitioners approach users with transparency, acceptance and deep empathic understanding. While there is a significant emphasis on evaluation and judgment in UCD, it is focused on the methods and their results rather than the human subjects - aka users - under study.

One important question in user-centered design is who the users are. Are we designing for ourselves or designing for others? Reflecting on Rogers' observation that the most personal is the most general, a third option might be proposed: designing for others through designing for ourselves. Much of the emphasis in UCD has been on designing for others, focusing on methods of observation, measurement and evaluation that help designers better understand [other] users' perspectives. However, some recent developments suggest a growing openness - on the part of some designers - to the idea of designing for others through designing for ourselves.


I captured portions of a debate on this topic - involving accusations of arrogance and justifications for self-centeredness - in an earlier post on irritation-based innovation, which I will simply summarize here with an observation made by one of the participants, Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, in response to a critique by human-centered design advocate, Don Norman:

Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too.

Personally, I believe there is room for both perspectives. While I think that the most innovative designs arise out of the effort to solve one's own problems, the solutions can be made more useful and usable through a greater understanding of how they might be perceived and used by others to solve their own problems. So, while the most personal may be the most general, UCD practices can help pave the way for maximizing that generalization.

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