There is no stop for innovation and disruption. I’m always curious what’s coming next: Smartphones, Tablets (which were said to have no use case in-between smartphones and laptops), augmented reality, artificial intelligence, chatbots, a conflation of those… Things are never stopping and emerging faster than ever. As a kind of countermotion — or supplement — practicing yoga and meditation is more flourishing than ever. People are searching for their stable anchor in a fast-moving world. Me including. That’s not evaluating the one or the other but just an observation. And the latter just a way people are using to balance their lives. A key part of yoga and meditation is awareness — or: mindfulness. As the practice of paying attention to the things we’re doing, feeling, thinking. An important habit in a world of multitasking, always-on, and an average of 100 WhatsApp messages a day (WhatsApp Revenue and Usage Statistics 2017).
Working in UX, and more precisely as a UX researcher, you’re always somewhere in a process collaborating with others who — usually — need your work and results by yesterday. You’re about to analyze data, interview users, summarizing the impressions to a management-understandable meeting format and a wowing-design concept and handing this over in some Scrum-friendly criteria for development. And, while you are about to refine your findings, specifying the criteria and explaining standing up for those — and why doing it the other, simpler way, is not what the user needed the next customer/mandate/project is already knocking on your digital door. — This combination is exactly where I need to anchor myself (and what I also love by the way).
Paying attention to what we pay attention to (and on what we don’t) was a crucial finding for me. Crucial for not feeling overwhelmed with tasks and finding my balance in the way I deliver my work, structure my duties, talk to my clients, and more of all, perceive people getting stressed because they are not able to listen and watch because their attention span only covers 3 minutes in a max.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the mindfulness gurus and author of “Full Catastrophe of Living” proposed 7 pillars of mindfulness, being attitudinal factors on which we can focus and work on, for being more mindful. Integrating those pillars to may habits and bringing this back to memories every once in a while, helps me be more focused, more efficient, but less stressed. This is what I want to share.
Non-judging is about witnessing open-minded. Anyhow, open-minded here does not refer to not being judgmental at all, but about gaining awareness and sensitivity for it. Because this sensitive awareness enables us seeing and understanding our inner judgments and making this process more emphatic and comprehensive. So, it is about noticing a judging mind, not trying to stop it. Or, as Josh Summer writes in his Blog about The Problem with Non-Judging, “it is not so much about getting rid of our views and opinions, but much more of upgrading [them] to wiser views and opinions”.
In the business area, this phenomenon is also discussed under the topic of Unconscious Bias, as automated mental processes that influence our attitudes and actions. An overdrawn example might be the development of an application by some IT geek, only focusing on functionality, not on the interaction flow, not allowing for any change requests because “everything is working properly and being documented in the how-to manual”.
The American author Anaïs Nin summarizes our view on the world aptly as “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. Coming back to UX, we try to counter this phenomenon with principles like “Walk in your customer’s shoes”, thus thinking from the customer perspective to understanding their needs, challenges, frustrations, and motivations. But, here as well, we must pay attention that all assumptions we make are based on our experiences, and on our (expert) knowledge likewise. Thus, when doing research, we must realize this by then being able to remove this personal bias from the results. The creative director Yegor Tsynkevich refers to this as active observation and active listening, or plainly said: “Collect the dots before trying to connect them”.
It’s about cultivating a mind that is open to see things as if for the first time. Not letting our experiences and our thinking of what we know and thus, beliefs of how things “are” stop us from seeing things as they really are. Each moment, each human is unique and deserves a unique possibility and an open mind.
So, it is about being receptive and open to new possibilities, and not getting stuck in our own expertise. And, regarding to our job as UX Researcher/Designer/… also, not being arrested in this. And, by being arrested in it I mean getting your beginner’s mind restricted by others. Which is usually a client asking for your UX support (generally somewhere near the end of the UCD process), stating that you, as the expert should arguably know — and give advice on — how it should work and look like. No matter if it’s about an employee self-service for bus drivers, a website for landscape gardeners or a mobile app for hospital nurses. –But no, you’re not. And even in an area in which you have some experience with similar projects and applications or you are even part of the target group, it’s your opinion, not the right one. Each moment, each human and each target user group, task and application scenario are unique. Overcome the temptation of claiming you know what the user needs. You know nothing.
Patience refers to letting things unfold in their own time. Not rushing through moments, striving of other ones. Jon Kabat-Zinn places the example of a child, being curious as well as impatient for a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. But you cannot push on that timetable. Trying to “help”, the butterfly would rather be a detriment, not a benefit for the butterfly. Knowing that things will emerge in their time and being open and welcoming for an actual moment is the key message here.
Those of you doing usability tests occasionally know only too well that patience is one of the most important abilities to have in this job — if not the most important one. The use case was adding an item to the shopping basket and then proceeding to the check-out? But the user cannot find the shopping cart icon although it is SO prominent and just in front of his face? You cannot believe it. Really? And you already hear the session time ticking — or, even worse, hearing the observers laughing behind the one-way mirror? Keep calm. Just watch, don’t tell. That’s what you’re here for. Remember: you know nothing. But with patience.
Can we trust what we know? Usually not, because we can misperceive, misapprehend, … Anyhow, trust, in this case, is about trusting mindfulness. There will not be an absolute trust, but a relative one to our senses. It’s about the feeling and the trust we have for ourselves. Trust that our mindful awareness brings us closer to an objectivity of our thoughts and feelings. And thus, trusting our feelings and our intuition.
In any case, trust in yourself and your expertise is something important for being successful and satisfied in any profession. As a UX researcher, you have to create trust with your client that your work is worth time and money. Even if there usually are no hard numbers to calculate behind it. But, you also need to trust yourself, that you will do some good for your client and that your work will be beneficial to him. Even though they place a ton of doubts on the sense of purpose on deploying explorative interviews, creating personas or doing a usability test with a paper prototype. It’s about trusting you and your course of action.
There is nothing to strive for but the actual moment. According to this pillar of mindfulness, the best way to achieving goals is to back off from striving and focusing on seeing and accepting things as they are. Moment by moment. There is no agenda. So, in the meditation practice, there is no other goal than being yourself. It’s here, where Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to the irony that you already are. The meditational non-striving does not call for getting somewhere else but going after where we already are and being fully there.
The second irony in my eyes is, that the “awareness” is something we do in meditation when striving for less stress in our live. And, dropping out of the meditation practice and going back the lived life, striving is not always connotated with something bad (Steve Jobs may haven’t invented the iPhone if he just lived the actual moment and not striving for some digital wowing enhancements). So, it’s more about not bone-headed striving for an idea which is hard/not achievable and accepting the state of now. But, we’ll stop hairsplitting and philosophy here.
As well, within UX research most of the time you do have an agenda as well. Agendas referring to your project timing and/or agendas structuring your research, like e.g. your interviewing guide. And, we strive on goals, like gathering knowledge on our users, how they behave, what motivates them and how good (or bad) the usability of our product is. But, there is one crucial meaning of non-striving for our UX research: that those goals should be attributed to our research endeavor, not the results. And this is not only meant for exploratory, generative methods but also for evaluative ones. Not describing and helping the desperate test users how the application works for fulfilling a task but paying attention to where they are, what they understand, what they assume, and seeing the reason why they behave the way they do. Seeing and accepting things as they are — even if this is not what you or your client expected. Users don’t want to use the new innovative chatbot function even though you only have Gen Y customers? Okay. The need and acceptance are not there, at least not yet. Moment by moment.
Acceptance is about seeing and taking things as they actually are. Therefore, it is neither about resigning nor about liking everything or even abandoning your wishes or values. It is the pure willingness to accept things as they are and not wasting energy by denying or rebelling against reality. This goes from accepting a headache when you have one, as far as if you lose a beloved one — sooner or later you must come to terms to accept this circumstance in order to continue a peaceful life.
Compared to the above example one should argue that business usually should be a less profound victim of non-acceptance. But, this is far out. Not diving deeper into more heavy things like not accepting technological change (anyone remembering Nokia?) but just looking below the own doormat. There are always moments when we do not want to accept that the well-thought-out concept is not understood by the users. Or you must convince your management/client that the awesome feature of competitor XYZ does not work for his customers and that being intuitive/up-to-date/innovative/etc. is not as easy as copying. And on this just one more hint: if you did all but your client does not take your feedback. Accept it — with patience.
Acceptance is a great transition to letting go. Letting go unites the acceptance of things as they are and the ability of not being attached to them. It’s about not clinging to ideas or opinions that we must have this or that to be happy. But also, not being caught up in rejections of unpleasant things. We are all aware that pleasure is infinite, and we hardly try to prolong our experience. In unpleasant moments we have the feeling that there is no sunshine anymore after dark and we try hard to reject. Letting go means desisting on struggling for or against but allowing things to be as they are.
In UX research letting go is the next step after acceptance. Users cannot cope with your concept? Then you must let it go and try another one. We know, this is tremendously hard when it is yours (see the Ikea Effect on who we attach to things we build on our own). But being aware of that (non-judgmental) and acting with patience will bring you to a better solution.
But it’s also about letting go that you may not have a (design) solution for everything, letting go of mistakes (yours and the ones from others), and letting go of perfection. Being aware of who and where we are, non-judging and with patience and acceptance, being more of who we are.
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