Zen and the Art of UX Design

november, rebuttal, effectiveness, philosophy

November’s shaping up to be a busy month in terms of projects I’m taking on and new things I’ve taken up. One such new thing is meditation. For years I’ve suspected meditation is something I should do. It’s surprisingly hard to get any straight information about the practice due to the overabundance of words like “chakra” which as far as I can tell are some mumbo jumbo magical spiritual energy nodes or something. Whatever, not important.

What is important is that a bunch of people I really respect are all for meditation, and the benefits they describe getting from it sound really nice. Things like mental clarity, improved mood, heightened energy, greater acuity, among others is a set of benefits too large to shake a stick at.

It’s not my first time trying to get into meditation, but my previous attempts were always along the lines of sitting around for ten minutes trying to focus my mind into a single point projecting out the front of my skull. Now I have a subscription to Headspace. It was really good for the free ten-day trial where they had me sit around for ten minutes trying to focus my mind into a single hole in my chest. And feel the chair beneath my butt. Next level stuff, really.

I’m being harder on it than is fair. I actually really like Headspace! There’s a chuffing great top-notch British lad who is anything but an absolute ledge and gently whispers sweet nothings into my ears. His name is Simon and he tells me helpful things like to remember that no matter how cloudy my mind is, there’s always a beautiful blue sky waiting somewhere behind it. I’m trying really hard not to take the piss out of it, because I do like it, but it’s kind of hard not to.

So anyway, as I was saying, Headspace tricked me into buying a subscription for like $8 a month or something similarly Netflix-ily priced. “Day 11 of my Headspace journey” starts off pretty well, but today Simon says that he wants me to think about why I’m meditating. Simon feels convinced that I am doing it to improve my relationships with the people in my life, and no matter how much I tell him otherwise, it feels as if my complaints are falling on deaf ears. But why am I meditating, you might be wondering? If so, I suggest you rewind a few paragraphs, because apparently your reading comprehension isn’t very good.

Get ready, because I’m going to do a thing that’ll blow your mind.

Simon is very insistent that I spend a few minutes every day thinking about how much my relationships will improve be as I meditate more, and it always takes me out of the zone because he’s entirely wrong about my motives. Dead wrong!

Don’t get me wrong. I know why Simon says these things. He’s trying to engage my parasympathetic nervous system. I just went perusing my archives looking for something to link to on that one but apparently I have yet to write about parasympathy (as I’m dubbing it.)

Allow me to explain1, he said, preparing to wave his hands over some of the grittier details. At any given time, any given person is somewhere on a continuum between their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems2.

Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for phrases like “being in the zome”, “fight or flight”, “emotionally empty” and some other things I can’t remember right now. What these things have in common is a withdrawing from the wider context of the world; where you are very aware of what’s happening minute-to-minute, and any unrelated stimulus you receive in this stage isn’t even registered to your awareness. Historically this was the system that kept us alive when something wanted to eat us, or when we needed our wits about us. In sympathetic nervous system mode, long term goals and political manuring capabilities go out the window, because they aren’t going to matter if you die in the next few minutes. In more contemporary circumstances, when we are less likely to be eaten by any particular thing, your sympathetic nervous system is involved for things that require heavy concentration. Programmers are kind of the archetypal sympathetic fiends; once those guys get into the zone you’ll never get them out. And if you do, they’ll be pissy.

Needless to say, spending a lot of time in sympathetic nervous system mode isn’t particularly good for you.

On the other hand, your parasympathetic nervous system mode is sort of like the stereotypical flower child. Being at this extreme of the spectrum brings out phrases like “we’re all in this together”, “wait, let’s think this through”, “connectedness” and “beautiful”. It’s characterized by a sense of one-ness, both with others and your environment. Being in parasympathetic nervous system mode is where you want to be to not throw away long-term goals for short-term rewards. There’s pretty good reason to believe that this mode is the rest and relaxation mode for both your body and your mind. Unless you have a particular reason to be in the sympathetic nervous system mode (like you’re solving a difficult sudoku or something), this is the place you should aim to be.

Wow. That was like the world’s biggest diversion from my intended topic (OK, well maybe not quite.) But as I was saying: I know why Simon keeps telling me to reflect on my relationships. He’s trying to push me deeper into parasympathy, because really, all of those benefits I listed earlier sound kinda like they’d come from spending more time with my parasympathetic nervous system. Connectedness, and all that.

Unfortunately for Simon, I’m not sure if he knows why he’s advocating it. I sort of (read: undeniably) get the impression that all of this meditation stuff is made up and only works by accident. And the points don’t matter. But let’s give our poor buddy Simon the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows what he’s doing. Let’s assume he does.

In that case I’d have to say that I’m pissed. Royally pissed. In that case, Simon is treating me like a child and stringing me along. His method isn’t working for me, and instead of focusing on what our goal is, he harps on and on about how to get there. But that doesn’t work if it’s broken.

Like, I get it. I know. I know Simon’s just a recording. I know that probably this stuff works for most people. I fully acknowledge that my frustrations are only being projected onto him. But still. This kind of bullshit happens everywhere: people focusing on the how and not the why, but not doing a good enough job of it and then it breaks and I have no recourse to fix it because I don’t know what we’re trying to do.

Remember when I said I was going to do a thing? Here it comes.

Fuck mobile apps. Fuck Web 2.0. Fuck this systematic dumbing down of everything in my life. I realize that’s not a very parasympathetic state of mind, but seriously. Everybody in all of these sectors is of the opinion that “options are bad.” Really??? Really???? This is not a strawman position; that exact phrase has been quoted to me by at least three companies I have talked to. Do you know why we invented options? We invented options because not having options was shitty. That’s why we invented them, so we didn’t have to have shit-by-default as our only recourse.

Yes, it takes a special sort of mind to go from a zen post about meditation to a full-on rant about how terrible our modern-age technology is.

Do you know why most of my engineer friends became engineers? It’s because as kids they tried turning the dials up to 11 on their amps, or they turned the darkness setting all the way up on their toasters, or something. In general, they gave extreme values to the variables they had, and watched with curiosity when things failed spectacularly in their face. It’s this freedom to play and to make mistakes, and, most impotently, to try to piece together how things work based only on how they stop working.

In an ideal world, technology would be as user-friendly as the t-shirt I’m currently wearing. All the complexity of this t-shirt came when I bought it (a matter of selecting the right tool for the job), and occasionally when I do laundry and remember that I should care about how the dryer might mangle such things.

But usually I just throw the fucker in with whatever load I’m already doing.

I know, I know. Most of the population doesn’t want a million different parameters they need to tune when they find something in a domain that isn’t their specialty. I feel sufficiently overwhelmed when I try thinking about nutrition that I can sympathize with Everyday Joe who just wants his app to do the thing he downloaded it for. Even if it doesn’t work very well.

So what’s the solution here? Bear in mind that I’m not a UX designer, but my approach when designing these things is a three-pronged approach.

  • have sensible defaults that cover 80%+ of your use cases
  • put all of the nitty gritty parameter options in one place
  • hide that one place behind a box that says “Show me all of the terrifyingly advanced options. I can handle them. I’m a consenting adult. I understand I’m giving up my right to ask for support by doing this.”

Wow. Amazing. Genius. Maybe I should patent that. UX design eat your heart out. In one fell swoop, a solution that solves all of our use-cases. The people for whom your app works well enough will leave it alone. Those who don’t will poke around and probably learn a thing or two, and it will probably prevent some de-conversions from power users who would have otherwise gotten fed up and found a better app. And finally, by putting the phrase “I am an adult” on it, we’ve incentivized children to lie and open it up and fool around and see what happens3.

Of course, this doesn’t work for my original problem with Simon and his patronizing attitude. In formats without interactivity, I’d suggest we add at least a minimum of technical theory behind what we’re doing, with footnotes (or what-have-you in the audio world) pointing to deeper resources. In Simon’s specific case, a better solution would for him to say “OK, now we want to loosen our boundaries of the ‘self’ and open up to the world. A lot of people find that it helps to do this by thinking about how this exercise we’re doing will improve their relationships…”

Wham, all of a sudden Simon’s brought me on-board. Now I know what we’re trying to do, and I have a suggestion for how to do it. If I want to follow it, that’s up to me, and if not, I can bear the responsibility for my actions. With that simple change of phrase, I’m empowered, and it’s going to make me better at meditation than blindly following the instructions given to me by the recording talking to me over the internet.

I realize not everyone wants to be treated like an adult, but maybe we should let them decide that for themselves.


  1. Shoutouts to Michael Valetine Smith who told me all about this stuff in one of the most fascinating lectures I’ve ever received. Also he’s one of the big driving forces behind my desire to meditate more. Props, Val.

  2. For all my vim freaks out there, these are really big words to type and I manage to fuck them up every time I try. So instead I wrote some iabbrevs for them: :iabbrev psns parasympathetic et al. It’s like command mapping but not annoying when you’re typing real stuff.

  3. This is how I learned most of the things that I know, by lying to computers and pretending I was an adult. Or by figuring out ways around the ones that knew I was lying and wouldn’t let me in. Arbitrarily stupid barriers to things are a great way of teaching, if you put interesting things behind the barrier. And a great way to breed discontentment, so that’s an added bonus!