How do occupational therapy and user experience relate?

Occupational therapy and user experience are both people-centered practices with the goal of solving problems to enhance the human experience.

What does an occupational therapist do?

Occupational therapists (OTs) are innovative problem solvers that help people live life to their desired potential. They often work with people with a range of abilities, cognitive defects, and motor impairments.

OTs investigate, uncover, and problem-solve barriers that limit a person to participate in their chosen occupations. An occupation, as defined by OTs, is any activity that occupies your time. This may be something you need to do, like personal hygiene, or something you want to do, like skiing.

When investigating barriers and opportunities, OTs consider an individual's physical, mental, social, and environmental factors to uncover problems as well as to identify strengths and opportunities. In doing such, they are more able to holistically approach problems and devise creative strategies for a wide range of human ability. The goal is typically to empower a person to overcome the mismatched interactions in their lives so they are better able to participate in the things they need and want to do.

OTs are well-versed in research processes. Most OTs conduct research during their education and in their practice and understand the significance of well-conducted research in informing decisions. Even if an OT doesn't actively conduct research, they often consume research to ensure that they are using effective interventions in their practice.

An OT with training in design principles can be a thought leader and asset to the UX team. For example, we have training in trauma-informed care which can be translated to trauma-informed research and designs, we constantly advocate for inclusive practices and understand how to approach differing abilities, we are skilled in devising solutions from informed research and information and can easily pivot (iterate) those strategies as needed.

Can therapy be considered an agile process?

At it's best, therapy and rehabilitation can be considered an agile, iterative process where cross-functional teams of rehabilitative and medical professionals work toward a common objective (cross-functional team collaboration, if you will). The team collaborates with the individual to determine the appropriate outcomes and goals, and they respond to functional change by evaluating the individual and their daily interactions.

Jump to Case Study

The following slides highlight the similarities in the processes of OTs and UXers.

It's important to note, that while these steps are shown in a linear fashion, each step or phase can be completed in a more fluid manner. Occupational therapy processes are generally more sequential, but can occur in tandem and in repetition as needed. The UX process does not necessarily have to be completed in succession and, at times, pieces are completed in parallel and may be repeated iteratively.

I recently came across this TED Talk by Agile Parent and Project Manager, Billy Samual Mwape. I was so excited to connect with him because his story and experience so thoroughly highlights an agile therapy process. Billy gathered a cross-functional team to support his son's development. The team set common objectives and worked toward those goals in sprints which greatly improved his son's function. (I'm sharing his story and TED talk in my portfolio with permission.)

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