UX & Occupational Therapy: A Comparison

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There are some surprising similarities between user experience (UX), advertising and occupational therapy.

Both are pretty exotic. Both are shrouded in relative obscurity for the non-insider.

UX, a little-known acronym outside of the digital marketing industry, is a new field compared to veteran disciplines like copy-writing and strategy. Still, it remains a vital part of the digital tool-kit. User experience design is truly effective when the UX practitioner has the right skills, thought processes and approaches to solving problems. There are those that masquerade as UX thinkers, UX designers and the like, but offer little true value to the design process. Because it’s such an ambiguous field, it’s open to vocational hijacking.

Occupational Therapy (OT) is also a somewhat enigmatic profession in the mind of the general public, and, at times, among other health professionals. But, unlike UX, OT is regulated, as you will need a University degree and registration with a health professionals board in order to practice. It’s not very likely that you’ll encounter someone claiming to be a therapist on the fly. Alongside better-known professions like audiology and physiotherapy, or celebrated professions like medicine, OT doesn’t get much publicity.

OT and UX are mindsets

Long-practicing OTs will tell you that occupational therapy will change the way you view the world and the people in it. Back in advertising-land, the UXers will tell you the same: user experience is a mindset, a thought process that will become second-nature with extended practice. Within the professional lexicons of both, meanings and terminologies translate, both roughly and seamlessly, to form an overlapping world of ergonomics, human factors, concepts and design. OTs design for well-being; UXers design for ease of use. Either way, they’re about crafting experiences — whether medical interventions or commercial quicksands — that make us take action.

In the past few months I’ve perked up on several occasions, and noted how concepts split and fuse along the parallel pathways of these two seemingly polar professions. Yes, there is stark differentiation in some areas, but, more interestingly, the carry-over of meaning appears more prolific. While there may be different meanings in different contexts, similar meanings across UX and OT endure. Human factors, for example, is the study of designing man-made objects that fit the human body and its cognitive abilities. This is a key area in both professions and requires that practitioners consider the demands of the task (whether it’s driving a car or navigating a website), the capabilities of the performer and the shape of the environment in which they are acting.

While UX is usually confined to the intangible, rather limiting environment of digital, OT expands into multiple dimensions, including physical, spatial and social. To delve even further, OTs can influence the realm of advertising to modify messages disseminated to various publics. In his book Role Emerging Occupational Therapy, Matthew Molineux imagines how OTs might be able to shape popular opinion and the messages conveyed through advertising, such as an ad campaign that promotes the health benefits of occupational engagement. Like UX designers and admen, we can influence how these messages are constructed, what they say and to whom they are said.

They’re About Human Behavior

My short stint in marketing strategy was interesting enough: consumer insights, market research, wants needs, desires, buying patterns, ethnographic and psycho-graphic insights, behavior traits and patterns constituted a pseudo-psychology that formed the stuff of elaborate PowerPoint presentations, booming pitches and minuscule outcomes. But it was a limited perspective. Its ultimate purpose was to understand enough of the world in order to identify weak spots, to pinpoint sites of susceptibilities, paranoias, gullibility, appetites, inclinations, fears, neuroses, desires and to fill these gaps with products. This was not the lens through which I wished to view the world and the human condition. I was interested in all of those. And more. But I wished to take it further. To fill these clefts of susceptibility, psychological rifts and fissures of moral, economic and social destitution not with products and services, but with effective interventions that would empower people, rather than faithlessly dis-empowering them by propagating a culture of want.

They’re Person-centered

User-centered design is a process in which a user’s needs, desires and wants are placed centrally to the design process, and requires iterative testing and multi-stage reinvention in order to create the best, most accurate experience possible. In following this methodology, the practitioner is able to fulfil the goal that the product has for its users. In OT, there is a persistent call for client-centered therapy in the theory. This means that the client is afforded the opportunity to develop a sense of autonomy and level of participation in the treatment process.

It is interesting to note the ways in which each profession places its subjects, and how each relates to these. The positions in which OT and UX place the individual are markedly different: in UX, the individual is an anonymous user, or consumer, armed with an internet connection and a certain level of digital literacy. It is the UXer’s job to ask bulleted questions about this user, make assumptions, and then test these. The end result? A digital product or experience that reflects these insights, based on the UXer’s informed decisions. In OT, the individual is the reason and the embodied goal. The individual determines the immediate direction and outcome of treatment. The therapist is the facilitator, but the client shapes the end product: a more independent, satisfying life.

writing person | occupational therapist | never seen a ghost. I write about food, weird histories, human behavior, and our lives under late capitalism

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