Duality is a concept with many meanings and resonance in our modern culture, from a philosophical set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, to applications in law and even physics.
The form we’re all most familiar with is moral dualism: the belief of the great compliment between good and evil. Good cannot exist without evil, but evil cannot exist without good, and so on. That that inherent conflict drives both into continued existence.
Many also believe in a mind-body dualism, where we as humans are essentially constructs of the non-material (our soul) and the material (our body).
But how does this concept of duality apply to UX?
As UX practitioners, we’re often asked to be the “expert” in the room. The one person who knows all. The guru. The ninja. The rockstar.
That singular definition is missing an enormous possibility, one that can enable us to reject being simply seen as any of those terms.
Now before we all go updating our LinkedIn profiles, let me explain.
As UX practitioners, we are driven by a sense of expertise in our craft. We know things others don’t, we can do things others don’t. We’re the experts, people come to us for it. This is true of course, but only part of the rendering of ourselves we need to consider.
We also should be beginners. But first, I’d like to introduce someone.
He founded monasteries across the country, introducing a whole population to Buddhism concepts, and an idea called Beginner’s Mind via his important book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” published back in 1970.
From Beginner’s Mind came a concept called Shoshin, the idea of having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.
But Suzuki captures the idea much more eloquently:
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
For a UX practitioner, this is especially valid. As our own expertise builds, so do our biases, preconceptions, beliefs and even ego. The culmination of these can be a tendency to narrow our own thinking.
Thus shoshin can to help us shift from only an expert mind to a beginner’s mind too, and open our possibilities to the vastness inherent within our minds.
The Link to Compassion
In human-centered design, we also speak much to the benefits of empathy, and Suzuki makes connections between compassion, a component of empathy, and the Beginner’s Mind:
“The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.”
When you embrace an beginner’s mind, you embrace a greater willingness to listen and learn from others. That willingness will produce a greater ability to be compassionate, and an empathetic sensibility to your practice.
The Empty Cup Parable
This also brings to mind an ancient Zen story, about a professor and a Zen master:
A well known professor went to visit a Zen master. As the master gracefully served tea, the professor described his ideas of Zen. The master remained quiet as the professor spoke, continuing to pour.
When the tea reached the brim of the cup, the Zen master kept pouring. The tea overflowed, spilling onto the tray, the table, and the carpet, until the professor could no longer stand it.
“Stop!” he said.“Can’t you see the cup is full?”
“This is you,” said the master, positing to the cup. “How can I show you Zen, until you first empty your cup?”
This empty cup or beginner’s mind can be incredibly useful at different points during a typical UX process.
The first is when you’re working to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Your expert mind will want to intervene, and mention all these other solutions that worked in this scenario and that scenario.
This is where you need to empty that metaphorical cup of your mind. It’s when you need to let go and open yourself up to true problems and opportunities.
How do you do this? A good place to start is with a key mantra in the Buddhist Six Elements Practice:
“This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this.”
This will help you begin to relieve yourself of attachments to your expert mind, and begin to let go of assumptions, biases, and even a degree of your ego.
Ultimately, it comes down to allowing yourself to not be an expert during every moment in every day. That maybe you don’t know everything about this problem, or this audience.
For most of us, that can really be a challenge. You’ve spent your career building up all this expertise and experience, and you’re going to throw it away?
Not exactly — the idea here is more to counterbalance that experience with shoshin. To let the pendulum swing to emptiness from fullness and back again. It will take practice, and you will not entirely be able to do it right away.
But what do you do with this newly empty cup mind?
This is where research should provide a key role for you, regardless of your discipline. Start talking to your audience. Start talking to your stakeholders.
Do both without an expert’s mind, but with a beginner’s shoshin mind — one open to possibilities, full of eagerness and compassion, as Suzuki outlined earlier.
Be willing to listen and learn, not judge and immediately “solutionize”. These principles are part of how we teach ethnographic research practices like interviewing and contextual inquiry, so the interconnectedness with research techniques is already there.
What about my expert mind?
Truth be told, Suzuki would probably be not too happy about this concept of a Dualistic Mind. He argued for an “original mind”, one open to everything and vast.
While this remains an endearing concept, we do need a modification within UX. There is a point where you need to shift into an expert mind.
This point should be different for every practitioner, based on where you feel your strengths are. Is it in pixel-perfect UI? Great, that’s your expert mind and you’ll know when to go there. Is it in framing clear experiences? Or within the content that guides us through an experience?
Regardless, your expert mind has a place — when your training and experience allow you to activate an idea for an experience.
How do I try this?
Easy. Next time you’re presented with a problem or a potential solution you feel is moving without the benefit of empirical insight, take your expert mind off the table for a while. Try the Six Elements mantra above.
When your beginner’s mind begins to emerge, go and talk to people about your problem or solution. You’ll see how your understanding begins to change, and how your cup begins to fill.
Just remember your dualistic UX mind ideal: its a constant shift between your beginner’s mind and expert mind. Like yin and yang, they always balance each other.
Consider the Pendulum
A good metaphor is the pendulum — your mind always has the same anchor point, but can swing to and fro as needed between a beginner and expert mind.
You can even map this pendulum concept to the double diamond process, where during the left diamond your pendulum swings to the beginner’s mind, and the right diamond it swings to expert mind.
Once you get really good at this approach, you can make this swing often, even several times a day as you attempt to make sense of everything.
While this will definitely be a challenge for most, embracing shoshin and the beginner’s mind should provide real tools to help yourself and the people you collaborate with be more creative, empathetic, and ultimately more human-centered.
Learn more about shoshin and the beginner’s mind with Suzuki’s timeless book here.
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