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January 2012

On the Personal Philosophy of Carl Rogers


A while back, I was delighted to discover the source of one of my favorite quotes:

What is most personal is most general.

The quote is from psychologist Carl Rogers' 1956 essay "'This is Me': The Development of My Professional Thinking and Personal Philosophy", which can be found in the first chapter in his 1961 book, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. I bought the entire book based on this one quote, and its elaborating paragraph. As I anticipated, the book is full of inspiring insights and experiences, far more than can be adequately expressed in a single blog post. I already applied and integrated some of his wisdom in a post on client-centered therapy, student-centered learning and user-centered design. In this post, I will excerpt some sections from his "This is Me" essay.

"This is Me" traces Rogers' personal and professional development, and the insights he gained into himself, his profession and the institutions and disciplines with which he was affiliated. Of particular relevance to me, in my own current professional context as a non-tenure track senior lecturer, is his judgment about the tenure process (based on his own context of having been hired, with tenure, at The Ohio State University):

I have often been grateful that I have never had to live through the frequently degrading competitive process of step-by-step promotion in university faculties, where individuals so frequently learn only one lesson - not to stick their necks out.

However, it is the more personal "significant learnings" that he shares that I find most inspiring (an example, perhaps, of the most personal being the most general). He is very careful to state at the outset that these learnings are true for him, and may or may not be true for others. Throughout the book, he carefully delineates data, feelings, judgments and wants, and he states each of his significant learnings with phrasing that makes the personal nature of his perspective clear. I will include the most direct statements of these learnings (with his emphasis) below, along with a few other excerpts that elaborate the learnings in ways I find personally useful.

  • In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not.
  • I find that I am more effective when I can listen acceptantly to myself, and can be myself ... a decidedly imperfect person ... the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.
  • I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person. ... understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding.
  • I have found it enriching to open channels whereby others can communicate their feelings, their private perceptual worlds, to me.
  • I have found it rewarding when I can accept another person. ... it has come to seem to me that this separateness of individuals, the right o each individual to utilize his experience in his own way and to discover his own meanings in it - this is one of the most priceless potentialities of life.
  • The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in and "fix things."
  • I can trust my experience. ... when an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing.
  • Evaluation by others is not a guide for me.
  • Experience is, for me, the highest authority.
  • I enjoy the discovering of order in experience. ... Thus I have come to see both scientific research and theory construction as being aimed toward the inward ordering of significant experience. ... I have, at times, carried on research for other reasons - to satisfy others, to convince opponents and sceptics, to get ahead professionally,  to gain prestige, and for other unsavory reasons. These errors in judgment and activity have only served to convince me more deeply that there is only one sound reason for pursuing scientific activities, and that is to satisfy a need for meaning which is in me [an example, perhaps, of irritation-based innovation]
  • The facts are friendly. ... while I still hate to readjust my thinking, still hate to give up old ways of perceiving and conceptualizing, yet at some deeper level I have, to a considerable degree, com to realize that these painful reorganizations are what is known as learning.
  • What is most personal is most general. [full quote below]
    Somewhere here I want to bring in a learning which has been most rewarding, because it makes me feel so deeply akin to others. I can word it this way. What is most personal is most general. There have been times when in talking with students or staff, or in my writing, I have expressed myself in ways so personal that I have felt I was expressing an attitude which it was probable no one else could understand, because it was so uniquely my own…. In these instances I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal, and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This has helped me to understand artists and poets as people who have dared to express the unique in themselves.
  • It has been my experience that persons have a basically positive direction. ... I have come to feel that the more fully the individual is understood and accepted, the more he tends to drop the false fronts with which he has been meeting life, and the more he tends to move in a direction which is forward.
  • Life, at its best, is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed. ... It is always in process of becoming.

I hope this blog, and my personal and professional life will continue to evolve in a positive direction. Meanwhile, I will surely continue to incorporate other of Rogers' insights - implicitly or explicitly - in my future thinking and writing.

Scott Berkun's Personal Insights on the Experience of User Experience Professionals


Scott Berkun shared some mistakes and lessons learned from his experience as and with user experience (UX) professionals last night at a meeting of the Puget Sound Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI). In a highly interactive session, he also invited the 40 or so other UX professionals who attended the meeting to share their own mistakes and lessons. The most prominent lesson I took away from the evening was one that applies much more broadly than to the UX (or HCI) profession: being a specialist generally means most people won't know what you do, so you must always be prepared to give a brief "101" explanation - and/or demonstration - to the uninitiated about what you do, how you contribute value and why others should care.

Scott began with a playful scree about the proliferation of titles - user experience researcher, usability engineer, interaction designer, etc. - that has led to a factionalization of UX, and suggested that we do away the variants and focus on the primary verb that unites the different roles: design. He then presented his list of UX mistakes and provoked a lively discussion that revealed that many experiences of many user experience professionals designers involve many of the mistakes (and lessons) he listed. Having recently written about the interrelationships between client-centered therapy, student-centered learning and user-centered design, it struck me that the root of many of the mistakes arise from a deficit in transparency, acceptance and/or deep empathic understanding on the part of one or more parties.


A large portion of the discussion revolved around issues of credibility, and the challenges designers face when working with teams composed primarily of software engineers and/or business folk. Many of these challenges arise from others' lack of transparency, acceptance or understanding of design[ers]. However, some challenges result from an unwillingness on the part of some designers to fully understand the needs of their other team members. Scott described one category of mistakes as "Vulcan pretension", an approach in which a designer focuses [only] on collecting, analyzing and reporting data, and is more concerned with the number of studies produced rather than how the results of those studies will be effectively applied to the problem(s) the team is trying to solve. Organizational and individual incentives that reward designers based on the count vs. impact of studies only serve to reinforce and exacerbate this issue.

Scott highlighted the multidimensional facets of usability involved in the design process: a designer might create an incredibly rich mockup of an interface that represents the epitome of usability for the eventual users of the product, without paying sufficient attention to how developers - another important set of users - will use that mockup to implement that interface. Taking care to specify details such as colors, fonts and sizes of different interface elements greatly eases the usability of the mockup for the developers who have to use it ... which also helps build credibility for the designer. Design is an inherently iterative process, but It is important to iterate with the developers - not just the intended end users - so as to become better acquainted with the developers' challenges as early as possible in the design process.


Another suggestion Scott had for designers to gain credibility was to find allies. Even if no one else on the team "gets" design, a designer can at least identify the one person who is least unappreciative, and invite that person to coffee or create another 1:1 interaction opportunity to help that person better appreciate the process and products of design. And if designers finds themselves in meetings without anything useful to contribute, it is best to be transparent, and talk with the manager about whether or how to set the stage to make contributions, or raise the prospect of not going to future meetings. This last suggestion sparked some interesting discussions about meetings, and about laptops in meetings making people more productive even when they cannot contribute [much] ... but Scott - fortunately - steered the discussion away from a potential rathole on meetings. Throughout this portion of the discussion, I found myself musing about Goethe's provocative insight in The Holy Longing:

Tell a wise person or else keep silent.


Another set of common UX mistakes involves what Scott calls a"Dionysian pretension" - being intoxicated with lofty ideas without sufficient concern for their applicability - and is also related to Scott's mistake category of "never get dirty". A willingness to roll up one's sleeves and do the dirty or disagreeable work the team must slog through - e.g., sticking around to participate in late night bug bashes - both yields a deeper empathic understanding [my words] of challenges faced by other members of the team and builds greater credibility among them. This wisdom aligns well with a post I recently encountered by David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals arguing that There's No Room for the Idea Guy, in which he emphasizes the relative importance of execution vs. [only] ideation.

I would share more details of Scott's presentation, but I know he is planning to write his own blog post on the topic, and didn't want to steal too much of his [mind]fire. I will update this post with a link when his post is available.

[Update: Scott has posted a far more thorough writeup on the top 10 mistakes UX designers make.]

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.