Yoga and the Art of User Experience Design
If you dig past the physical practice of yoga, you will uncover two key principles that can take your design practice to the next level.
Yoga is well known as a physical practice. In the United States especially, it is most commonly equated with exercise and physical fitness. But, Asana, the physical practice of yoga, is just the tip of the yogic iceberg. Yoga also has a rich set of teachings and philosophies, and this is where the magic happens.
There are two core principles to yoga: Abhyasa (pronounced ah-bee-YAH-sah), and Vairagya (vai-RAHG-yah).
Abhyasa is often translated as “constant exercise” or “constant practice.” In yoga this means developing a strong conviction and persistent effort to achieve the end goal, which, for Yogis, is self-understanding. This concept goes further to say that effort for efforts sake will not move you down the path. To truly move toward the end goal the effort must be focused and intentional. This requires routine and repetition. The core idea here is that to reach the goal you must never give up.
Vairagya, or non-attachment, means to free yourself of your emotional investment in outcomes, possessions, ideas and expectations. In yogic philosophy, worldly attachments stand in the way of self-understanding. This does not necessarily mean that you completely remove or do without those things. It means that you resolve to release your emotional connection to them. If you have something, or don’t, it doesn’t matter. The core idea here is that to reach the goal you must always let go.
A foundation of the practice of yoga is based in finding balance between these two seemingly contradictory principles: never give up and always let go. And these same core principles could not be more suited for the practice of design.
Abhyasa: Never Give Up
Persistence is the foundation of great design.
For starters, the only way to become a great designer is through constant practice. But not just practice for practice sake. Science writer Joshua Foer, in his book Maximize Your Potential, explores research completed by psychologist Anders Ericsson, in which he finds:
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.”
The way we practice is critical, and to be most effective it must push to the edges of our capabilities. Ericsson’s findings go further:
Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.
When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.
Something my friends and I used to say when we were snowboarding, “if you aren’t falling, you aren’t trying hard enough.” A great designer needs to be willing to constantly break out of her comfort zone and push herself to the point of falling.
Unfortunately, the path of least resistance is often the path previously taken. It takes an intentional and persistent effort to break away this path and push further.
Designing a routine (and sticking to it) can be a great way to consistently achieve this.
The idea of persistence in design is not only manifested in the process of becoming a great designer, but also in the process of design itself.
When presented with a problem it can be tempting to latch onto the first solution that presents itself, but great designers are willing to push on the problem from many different angles and then continue to push until their ideas break.
The process of continual pushing often ends with solutions that were unseen at the beginning and stronger than initial concepts.
The best solutions often come from a persistent, methodical process of working through lots of ideas, especially in the early stages of a project.
James Dyson, for example, in his quest to create a better vacuum, went through 5,127 prototypes before finalizing his design.
Pushing hard on your ideas requires persistence, but ultimately landing on the best solution means you also must be will to kill many of those ideas.
Vairagya: Always Let Go
At first blush the idea of applying non-attachment to design may seem counterintuitive. As designers it is our job to be attached. We are supposed to be the champions of the details. We are supposed to be concerned about the outcomes.
In reality, non-attachment is the central tenet of user-centered design. The point of the user-centered design process is to develop an empathic view of a problem from the users perspective so you can design a solution that fits their needs. In order to find empathy we attempt to eliminate our own preconceived notions, biases and expectations. However, the idea of eliminating those things is nearly impossible, as they are so fundamental to our worldview. What the principle of vairagya tells us is that we do not need to eliminate them. What we need to do is release our emotional attachment to them.
If you do up front work to identify your biases and assumptions around a project, then you allow yourself to be aware of them as they bubble up in your thinking. In this way you can acknowledging them and let them go. This can clear the path for a more empathetic approach to solving design problems. This is the same process as when applying non-attachment to meditation. The goal is not to try and force all the thoughts from your mind — that is a losing battle. Instead, you allow thoughts to come into your mind, you acknowledge them and then immediately let them go.
Practicing non-attachment also allows a designer to be more open to finding the best solution. As I said earlier, the best solutions often come from a persistent, methodical process of working through lots of ideas. If we carry an emotional attachment to our ideas it becomes harder and harder to move past them, which makes it more likely that we’ll stop before finding the best solution.
Being willing to let go of ideas leaves us open to all the possibilities.
For years now, athletes of all types have embraced the physical benefits of yoga to improve their performance. Likewise, designers can harness the deeper teachings of yoga to take their work to the next level.
It just takes practice.