5 lessons UXers can learn from a Buddhist

I got a chance to relax a few weeks ago - something that rarely happens, for me - and I used it to read a great book on Buddhism.

So there I am, relaxing and reading about happiness and relaxation, with work supposedly the furthest thing from my mind.

Which, of course, means I had work on my mind. And so, having squandered my opportunity to forget work, and instead having performed an expert review of Tibetan Buddhism, here are just a few points I think the average UXer could learn from:

1. Lead a moral life

A core tenet of Buddhism is to lead a moral life; the apply morality to your thoughts and actions. A good Buddhist should avoid killing or harming others, stealing, lying, hurtful words and sexual/substance irresponsibility. All good stuff.

I'm not suggesting here that UXers need to give up the booze and start going to bed early - half the bars in town would go bankrupt of that happened, and if caffeine is counted as a substance to use responsibly we'd lose dozens of coffee shops overnight.

I am, however, suggesting that UXers need to take a moral approach to design.

As I've written about in the past, we hold a relatively unique position. The typical image drawn when you explain UX is the convergence of three circles - business, consumers and technology. We work in that finite space in the middle, where the needs of the business and its customers overlap with the potential for technology to deliver on both.

The problem we face is that each circle is generally consumed with selfishness; or, at least, it can be. Consumers want the best they can get, at the best price. They want more for less. Business on the other hand wants to sell or succeed as much as possible, which can war mightily with the desire of consumers. Technology on the other hand is just a gun - it doesn't particularly care who picks it up, nor who it is pointed at. And increasingly the caliber of that weapon is going up; technology can show us what people look at, what they hover over, and what they focus on. We can tie together their searches and their behaviors, and soon we'll know more about them than they'd ever willingly tell a salesperson. Technology is becoming a weapon of truly scary accuracy and power; and just like a weapon, it can easily go off in your pocket and remove certain parts you'd normally wish to retain. 

So there we are, in the merry middle, on the raggedy edge of these disparate needs, stitching together solutions. We're paid by business, but driven by desires to meet the needs of consumers. We're consumer advocates, but business believers. 

So it's paramount that we learn to approach this unique position in a moral fashion. Do no harm should be our mantra (hey, it's time Doctors learned a new one anyway). Our goal is harmony, since harmonious overlap of both goal and delivery is the only truly successful model.

Just as in Buddhism, UXers should avoid design (or actions or processes) that harm or defraud or dis-empower the user, avoid taking from them (for example in hidden charges or deceitful approaches), avoid leading to incorrect or untruthful assumptions, and avoid misusing our unique position.

Be good, people.

2. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a wonderful technique and whilst it is not unique to Buddhism, it is a common theme.

Put simply, Mindfulness means paying attention to your current situation. It was first explained to me in terms of eating an apple. "Imagine you are eating an apple," my teacher said. "First, stop and look at the apple. Really look, enjoy the colour, the light, the hues and shades. Next, smell it - enjoy the freshness, the scent.." And of course, the flavour. 

The point is simple, enjoy the moment, stop and smell the roses, live in the moment - pick your aphorism. 

 

When it comes to UXers, the same rule can apply. The core tenet of our approach, the key reason for our existence, (apart from getting paid, of course) is to craft great experiences. But how can you craft a great experience if you don't stop to smell the roses within that experience, to make sure you got it right.

So, UXers need to take the time to flow through their designs slowly, lovingly sniffing and soaking up what they've built. If you can enjoy the moment in there, then you probably made it right.

Once a day, I currently make a point of selecting a moment to enjoy. It might be eating something, or walking somewhere or just sitting and taking in a good view. I'll stop, think about this moment and everything that is hitting my senses, and I'll take stock of it all, tiny piece by tiny piece, to soak up all the juice. The same can be done with our designs. Today I tried it with an app I am designing, and it works wonderfully - and I found two small fixes to boot!

3. Accept the concept of karma

Karma is a core doctrine of Buddhism, and teaches of cause and effect; bad thoughts lead to bad outcomes, good thoughts lead to good ones. Drink and drive, speed down a dark lane, cause leads to effect whether you expect it to or not.

In Buddhism the concept carries forth across generations - what you do in one life can have a lasting impact for lifetimes to come, good or bad. Buddhists explain the current inequalities of life as being largely down to karma and the actions that came before.

I am not advocating here that UXers should believe in reincarnation and live the holy life to ensure a more beneficial next-life to come. I am advocating a simpler understanding and comprehension of the simple mechanism of cause and effect.

At the simplest level, good design is all about cause and effect. Actors take actions, and effect follows cause; whether that's pressing a button, making a selection or hiding a control. What often becomes lost though is the story of those actions. Choices that users make earlier can easily become lost, so that the cause becomes disconnected. How many systems have you used where you think of it as a 'dumb' system, because it has failed to remember either information or choices you've made? Probably more than one or two.

So cause and effect, just like Karma, need to become indelible; they need to stack, to be stored and remembered. Good design should be karmic in nature.

And, it should be said, Karma does exist. Good design work stacks up, and builds our reputations. It pays back in times to come as our work build experience and awareness - or, if we take short cuts, builds the opposite bank of negative feedback. Karma's watching....

4. Wisdom and compassion go hand in hand

Buddhism teaches that wisdom must be twinned with compassion; it is not enough to know, you must have compassion and an understanding on how that knowledge can be used to help others.

And when you think about it, that's pretty much exactly what UX is all about.

We learn - personas, stories, journeys, contexts of use. We learn about the business need and the user need, the potential technology solutions, we learn about design. We gather wisdom in how to resolve problems and how to fulfill needs in a useful way. And then we apply that wisdom to problems we are asked to solve. 

It's the compassion that is sometimes missing. Just as with point 1, it's key that we do no harm, that we consider the outcomes of the applied wisdom we apply.  Just as with karma, what we do comes back to us - so consider the impact on the audience, and their needs, at each and every stage.

5. All life is suffering

Buddhism teaches the 4 noble truths, the first of which is that all life is suffering. Taking a 'realistic' view of life, Buddhists believe that life involves pain, suffering and death. Fear. anger, aggression, depression, life is a roller-coaster of suffering.

The other noble truths go on to explain why life is suffering, and how happiness can be achieved. But just as with that first girl or boy who dumped you in high school, it's not the reason that is important - it's the suffering that counts.

 

Just as with Buddhism I think UXers need to accept that all digital experience is suffering. We like to believe that the experiences we craft are unique, fun, pleasant to use. And, at times, they can be.

But mostly they are little more than obstacles that need to be overcome; pain that needs to be borne. In Buddhism, the suffering in life is caused by our wants and desires, needs and fears. For UXers it is much the same; the suffering within interfaces is caused by the wants and desires, needs and fears of the user. We need to accept that, and then manage the flow. That may not seem like much of a point to make, but stick with me. The average UXer would probably state that designs can be pleasant, that pain and suffering exist but not everywhere. And then they'd probably state that solutions can be found to all the issues.

But in my time I have found that not to be the case. We cannot remove the pain, we cannot end the suffering - although we can (and regularly do) reduce it. Our goal is not to end the suffering that is digital experience, but to reduce and manage it, and to make flowing through it simpler and easier.

 

And, overall, if we learn these few things, perhaps we can also learn the inner peace and tranquility that many Buddhists take for granted.

 

Gary Bunker

the Fore