Why your next UX colleague could be a social worker

An unrealized partnership

Social workers have translatable superpowers ready to benefit the design field. At the Master’s and PhD level, accomplished social workers have five core skills available to multidisciplinary teams.

1. Empathy

Social workers understand empathy. Introductory social work courses evangelize meeting clients where they are at, emphasizing the importance of locating oneself in the experience of another. This deep understanding strengthens the therapeutic alliance, which turns out to be one of the most robust predictors of positive experiences in therapy.

In other words, relationship before task. Always.

Transitioning from social work to UX, substituting ‘clients’ with ‘users’ seems an easy pivot.

2. Collaboration

Social workers thrive in multidisciplinary teams, because social work demands a multiplicity of skills. In certain settings, it isn’t unusual in the same day for a social worker to a) lead group therapy with children ages 8–10 who have serious learning / behavioral challenges, b) conduct supervision with staff about how to meet child mental health needs while also meeting staff self-care needs, c) interface with parents / guardians over phone and in person with child updates, d) plan with school officials about how the school system will sustain child treatment gains, and e) perform multiple research activities to monitor and report ongoing child progress. Throughout the day, pivotal feedback is offered and received. Improv is rewarded.

While social work has been historically criticized as an aspect of many professions rather than a profession freestanding, innovation ecosystems now recognize the importance of role flexibility, particularly when design thinking is leveraged.

In other words, skill multiplicity = faces of innovation.

Transitioning from social work to UX, applied social scientists have much to offer in product manager roles.

3. Storytelling

Social workers stereotypically and factually carry large caseloads (i.e., sensitive stories). Stories are ever-present in the therapeutic process. As stories are re-told, re-interpreted, and re-defined, themes rise to the surface, and shifts in identity and perception become possible. We know from Brené Brown that stories told to social workers are often accounts of vulnerability.

In other words, social workers communicate through story.

Transitioning from social work to UX, social workers can articulate where breakdowns / hang-ups occur in a user’s journey, as these formulations have been baked into their training.

4. Working with the late majority and digital outcasts

Social workers will understand that latecomers, stress cases, and fringe users should not be ignored, and that the challenges these users face may be the most important to address. By solving problems for those with the greatest need, you will come to better understand your product, your users, and your assumptions.

In other words, great responses yield multiple benefits.

Transitioning from social work to UX, social workers are likely to be naturally drawn towards compassionate design.

5. Systems thinking

Social workers are trained to approach problem solving with a wide lens, understanding that people problems always involve humans wandering through contexts. This approach to problem solving invariably takes a biopsychosocial (i.e., overlap of biology, psychology and sociology) perspective to solving user needs.

In other words, consider person in environment.

Transitioning from social work to UX, social workers will ask questions to better understand the user across their social environments, and wonder how these environments impact their use of your product.

Social work and UX are person-first professions.

Of course, not all social workers are therapists, and not all social workers are good fits for software product teams. Still, for those helping professionals interested in design and innovation, who commit themselves to life-long learning, the career leap from social work to UX may just be the logical next step. Endless resources exist to get trained up independently.

Having learned the design lexicon and your organization’s accent, your new UX colleague (and former social worker) will evolve as a contributor to your team’s mission, scaling the difference they were already trained to make.

My name is Winslow, and I am a social work PhD candidate. My portfolio can be found at winslowrobinson.com. My dissertation uses video, javascript and behavior design for social good. If you have an offer, connection, or opportunity involving human-centered design, let’s chat! I’m at wsr2104@caa.columbia.edu.