Ancient Chinese philosophy and modern UX design — being in a “flow” state of mind as an individual and as a user.
When one uses a product naturally, without thinking about it, they can be considered in “flow”. UX design is all about making the user’s flow flawless without friction or frustrations. The designer’s responsibility is clear — create a user’s journey with this “flow” in mind. Meaning creating the easiest, most intuitive and most inclusive experience possible. Ancient Chinese philosophy refers to rituals, harmony and effortless behavior — “wu-wei”. Although ancient, the core of it remains relevant to the way we live as individuals and as a society. In this short article, I will connect these two seemingly unrelated topics, and bring into UX design a new way of thought.
It’d be impossible to mention ancient Chinese philosophy without the teachings of Confucius. One of its core ideas is the reliance on societal cohesion and the rituals that bring order in the empire without sanctions. The rituals of these communities and societies bring together individuals into a feeling of holiness, being a part of something large, harmonious, and greater than the self. As the Confucian philosopher Xunzi said:
“By ritual, the sun and moon radiantly shine;
By ritual, the four seasons in progression arise”.
Partaking in rituals is the first task, but the consistency of it, the melodic pattern of repetition over and over again, dissolves the individual into the community, and creates an effortless way of being.
The Taoists look to adopt an effortless state of mind, one that ultimately leaves human nature untouched. They looked at the mind-body connection as though it were a behavior modification; meditation and purely physical breathing techniques enabling the strong connection. A relevant concern to the effortless way of the Tao — is the constant need to make a cognitive effort, perhaps remaining as a paradox. Today we can see a bold trend of mindfulness, meditation and yoga — as a search for concentration, harmony and community. People are looking to feel a sense of flow; perhaps there’s a need to adopt new rituals and wellness habits.
Celebrations of the Lunar New Year (anonymous print, Museum of the Ermitage). Inner yard of a rich Chinese house.
Edward Slingerland in his book Trying Not to Try describes the Chinese philosophers and their extensive writings on the Tao and “wu-wei”. According to Slingerland, the Taoists believed this is the source of all success in life, and they developed various strategies for achieving it and maintaining it. Edward mentions four key early Chinese strategies for attaining wu-wei:
- Try Hard Not to Try: shaping and polishing your behavior
- Stop Trying: embracing the uncut block, acceptance
- Try, but Not Too Hard: take it easy
- Forget About It: going with the flow
Edward Slingerland / Trying Not to Try / edwardslingerland.com
What is flow?
Following the Wu-wei theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow in his book of the same name Flow, as:
“A state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. People are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
In order to achieve flow, you need to consider three things:
- Realistic goal setting
- Matching skill levels
- Maintaining focus
Flow happens when one’s skill matches the difficulty of the task performing. If the task is too difficult, it can lead to anxiety and flow becomes difficult to attain. Conversely, when skills are greater than the needs of the challenge, it can simply become boring. The match between the skill level and the action relates to the rituals of doing, of acting, in an harmonious way by constant repetition. When skills align with the difficulty level, it enables a thoughtless process, regardless of being in a group or individual setting.
Flow / Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi / amazon.com
Effortless effort in UX
In general, there are several approaches for designing the most (or at least hopefully the most) intuitive and convenient UX. For example, lean on existing products, perhaps similar ones or very common ones like email and communication. The ancient Chinese philosophy described above can maybe teach us about ways to make users achieve success.
- By keeping the action that is going to be achieved at the end of a specific process as clear as possible — we keep things in focus and match the user’s expectations to the expected outcomes.
- Accept the challenge of learning a new flow, a new UI or branding, a new version or a new feature. It takes time, expect no magic. Though after a while, when users overcome the challenges, they can feel obstacle-free, and, in a flow, they feel that their skills match the actions again.
- Keeping the users focused on a certain action, one at a time, enhances the feeling of flow. In order to achieve this concentration we can try minimizing distractions, think about keeping some areas clean (white space), separate different sections with different purposes, or use hide and show states like a hamburger menu.
- By observing the user’s behaviors in using the product one can see where they might be struggling and having a hard time finding the flow of use. Using usability testing methods is the best way to get a better understanding of the product’s use and the user’s pain spots. After analyzing these specific spots, one can offer various alternative solutions.
Pinterest feed / pinterest.com
One good example for flow UX can be the Pinterest platform. “Pinteresting”, endless scrolling on Pinterest, looking for inspiration, ideas or just refreshing your brain from work — is super easy and ‘flow-ish’. The primary phase of learning the interface is designed to be fast — the scroll is very similar to other common social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. As a frequent user I can assure you that the scrolling experience is sometimes too entertaining — you’ll be able to do it for hours without noticing the time has passed. There are a few main realistic goals when ‘Pinteresting’: saving a pin, managing your profile’s boards, and uploading content. There are almost no distractions, and the main feed screen is all about new, refreshing and customized content.
Possible dangers of being in flow
Being in a flow state of mind while using a product would probably be very satisfying for a user, especially during initial use. Although, being totally invested in a certain action to the point of losing sense of time and judgment can be dangerous and harmful. For example, Gamification in UX and UI refers to the usage of game-based elements in other contexts than pure games. Games require concentration; they tend to present an alternative reality that sucks our attention and line of thought.
Dating app / Yogas Design, Unsplash.com
Dating apps are a great example of a bold use of gamification: the entire UX is built on rewarding every match between two singles, making it almost as if you “won” it. These platforms capture the users, making them look for new matches without stating any progress or defining an absolute end. The UI supports the gamified state of mind as well, with fresh neons, gradients and game-ish sound effects. The users can get fully invested in the platform, and this kind of behavior, for some, may be addictive.
The take away
We learn from ancient Chinese philosophy the most fundamental way of looking at an effortless way of being and the effect it can have on our lives. In the hectic lifestyle we live in today, being in flow is divine and even rare. The principles and methods mentioned to achieve flow in an effortless way, can easily be applied to the UX. All users want is to feel in control, enjoy and succeed in the actions they perform — this should keep them satisfied. In order to achieve this goal, you must do three things: the challenges you design are realistic, the actions are clear, and the path is free.
Bibliography and further information about this topic:
- Van Norden, Bryan W. Introduction to classical Chinese philosophy. Hackett Publishing, 2011
- Leino, Tony, et al. “The relationship between structural game characteristics and gambling behavior: A population-level study.” Journal of gambling studies 31.4 (2015): 1297–1315.
- Linne, Joaquín. “It’s not you, it’s Tinder.” Gamification, consumption, daily management and performance in dating apps.” Convergencia 27 (2020)
- Lowman, Graham H. “Moving beyond identification: Using gamification to attract and retain talent.” Industrial and Organizational Psychology 9.3 (2016): 677–682
- Usability testing, Norman Neilsen group https://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-testing-101/
- Wu-wei, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei
- Trying not to try, Edward Slingerland https://www.edwardslingerland.com/trying-not-to-try
- Flow https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi
- Chinese rituals visuals https://anypics.homes/ancient-chinese-ancestor-worship