Detail from Huang Gongwang's "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains"

Confucian Philosophy for UX

Here are some thoughts I’ll be sharing at the UX Hustle Summit next week.

Merholz and Skinner, in their Org Design for Design Orgs (2016), provide a five-level sketch of how a person could expect to grow in their UX career. They are careful to explain that these are not universals and must make sense within the context of each organization’s structuring. Because this is for the UX Hustle Summit, which bills itself as “the only UX Career conference,” I thought it would be appropriate to share some of what I’ve gained from their book and also what I’ve gained from my years of studying Chinese Philosophy.

When I came to User Experience Design and Research some folks thought it was a radical career change. But I knew that my transition into my new roles and teams was in many ways a continuation of a career marked by a series of ongoing concerns and cultivation of talents. As a job seeker, my challenge during my job search was to craft a series of narratives that illustrated the consistency in my career.

To craft that narrative I have found it useful to reflect on passages from the Analects (論語, Lunyu); I do so at different moments in my life. They are both inspirational and aspirational—a gentle reminder that living a good life entails a number of decades of self-cultivation.

Crafting a well-lived life

The teachings of Confucius were not a list of commandments but rather a series of recommendations for how to become a fuller human being by investing wholeheartedly into our social relations. To accomplish this he advocated that we sincerely involve ourselves and become masterful in the performance of all the rituals of human communal living. These rituals are both big and small—from annual celebrations of our ancestors to the often overlooked and under appreciated niceties of social conventions.

For the Confucian, the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is likely a straightforward and earnest, “I am the child of my parents, spouse of my partner, parent to our child, sibling to my parents’ children, etc.” It may seem like a laundry list of relationships but it is also illuminating the critical role our families play in our identity-formation. For the Confucian, we become individuated through our sincere dedication to acting out our obligations and duties to others.

Through our sincere and wholehearted performance of our roles and obligations to our families, neighbors, and our countries we come closer to becoming exemplars of a particularly admirable kind of person, a junzi (君子). When we fail to wholeheartedly participate in these meaning-generating relationships and rituals we not only fail to become an exemplary person, we are also on the path to becoming less of a person worth mentioning. In so failing in these ways we become petty, a xiaoren (小人, literally a small person).

Confucius created a legacy that, at its heart, provides guidance for people to live aesthetically, meaning both lives arranged by good judgement and of good taste and/or artistic merit.

Confucianism and careers

“At fifteen my heart-and-mind xin (心) were set upon learning; at thirty I took my stance; at forty I was no longer of two minds; at fifty I realized the ming (命) of tian (天); at sixty my ear was attuned; and at seventy I could give my heart-and-mind xin (心) free rein without overstepping the mark.”

Analects 2.4

To clarify what Analects 2.4 is pointing toward I listen to Ames and Rosemont, Jr. who recommend that we interpret the passage as series of mileposts on the paths of our lives:

  • Striking out in a direction (at 15)
  • Taking our places (at 30)
  • Knowing which way to go (at 40)
  • Realizing the terrain around us (at 50)
  • Following along in tune with what the terrain affords (at 60)
  • Journeying wherever we want without going astray (at 70)

I’ve paired some of these mileposts along with modified versions of Merholz and Skinner’s career level tables. I don’t think they are a perfect illustrations of one another but I pair them because I think it’s appropriate to think of our careers as part of the continuum of experiences that inform the kinds of people we are trying to become. Among my hopes from this talk and this particular pairing is that folks will get at least an intuitive sense that all their experiences are valid and useful experiences when we think about how we want to grow professionally and personally.

We don’t just pass these mileposts, we continuously perform these things.

It’s not the case that we “strike out in a direction at 15” and then never do that again. Rather, we continuously perform each of these steps that Analects 2.4 lists. We practice these activities throughout our lives and we become consummate performers of these activities as we progress in the years of our dedication to self-cultivation.

For instance, I have been practicing being my parents’ son for decades and the lessons I’ve learned from those decades have informed the ways in which I perform other roles throughout my life. I will continue to practice being my parents’ son even after they’ve died.

There’s a long historical connection between Confucian self-cultivation and the development of the merchant class in China. You may even argue that the natural extension of one’s self-cultivation is to practice what we learn in the marketplace.

We may tend to think that careers are the result of learning a technical skill (such as rapid prototyping in UX) and then doing a volume of work with our technical skills. But measuring our careers as a collection of outputs from projects is too limiting for anyone’s long-term satisfaction. It’s simply mechanical and dehumanizing to measure ourselves in this way.

Reconceptualizing my career is something that my Confucian training enables because, fundamentally, a career is a matter of kungfu mastery.

Gongfu 功夫 (Kungfu)

The term gongfu 功夫 originally described the laboring of people but it came to take on a cluster of related meanings including (with thanks to Ni Peimin):

  • the time and effort someone invests into an activity,
  • the ability to accomplish what we set out to do, and
  • the results of accomplishing what we intended.

Because of these associations, gongfu now applies to any of the arts of living and effective skills that we cultivate like cooking, public speaking, and I’d argue it’s applicable to the work UXers do as well (I think of my colleagues with excellent diagramming skills, or who are fantastic facilitators).

The result of a gongfu process is to cultivate the practitioner through step-by-step guidance and practice, as the practitioner reaches higher levels of artistic perfection.

There are a number of practices that a Confucian will take on and while I advocate you do practice (here’s one for sleep from my friend, Bin Song), for our purposes now I’d like to discuss with you a couple of vocabulary terms that have been useful for me in my UX work.

These terms are not simply descriptions of truth, they also summon our internal energies and help they also enable us to adjust our relationships with others.

Xin 信 and becoming someone worth remembering

The value we UXers present to organizations is our ability to provide good counsel to our stakeholders. But how is that good counsel produced? It’s not simply the accretion of studies conducted, although that may be part of how we come to generate the trust associated with good counsel. Uncovering insights into customer and user behaviors is of course valuable, but these are only tactical matters and good counsel is a matter of strategy. To be trustworthy is not something that is innate in a person, it is something that a person enacts.

The term we encounter in the Analects is xin 信, “living up to one’s word,” and it occurs more than three dozen times in the collection. It’s such an important concept that Confucius tells his students, “I am not sure that anyone who does not make good on their word (xin 信) is viable as a person.” If we look at the use of xin in the Analects we will see that it is often paired with the term zhong 忠, “doing one’s utmost.” Xin is the link between saying and doing, it is a matter of consistency among our words and our actions. In UX xin is useful for us when we are faced with “scope creep.”

Xin is there to ground us when our stakeholders ask us to incorporate a new feature into a design, or when they ask that a different segment be incorporated into a study. It is our responsibility in those moments to demonstrate our interpersonal and professional credibility by reminding our stakeholders that, yes those features or those market segments can be included in our process, and it will have the following resource costs. The constant challenge for us as we grow in our careers and our interpersonal relationships is to ensure we do not over-promise and under-deliver.

When we are able to meet this mark, admittedly no mean feat, we are doing something truly commendable. Confucius himself conceded that maintaining the path he shares with us is not easily done. But when we encounter this kind of person who is able, we are in the presence of someone worth emulating. To play with the Yiddish expression that person is a real Mensch.

Zhong 忠 and being masterful communicators

UX Research and Design require a number of skills and foremost among those is communication. A UXer needs to be able to easily illustrate the connection between the big picture/strategy-stuff and the minutia/tactical-stuff.

And there isn’t just one audience with whom a UXer must communicate. A UXer needs to be able to appreciate the differences between the needs of the folks that comprise their cross-functional teams.

For instance, when sharing research findings with a fellow UXer it may be perfectly appropriate to get into the weeds with them about the decision to use a particular methodology rather than another. However, that same study will likely need to be communicated in a very different way for C-suite decision makers. And, of course, often what the UXer is being asked to communicate is an argument for doing something different from what the team or organization had been doing recently.

So the UXer needs to be not only able to communicate what they did, but also make the winning case for why the team’s or organization’s resources ought to be distributed in this other way. To make these winning cases, the audience has to be properly understood and addressed in terms that are compelling to them.

But how do we learn to appreciate those differences within our organizations? This is where zhong 忠, “doing one’s utmost” has been helpful for me.

To do my best I need:

  1. to understand who I am (recall at 15 we strike out in a direction, we then take our places at 30, and we know which way to go by 40)
  2. and appreciate the context in which I find myself ( we realize the terrain around us at 50 and can follow along in tune with what that terrain affords at 60).

Zhong 忠 means doing not only our best but to give ourselves fully to the task at hand. But to give ourselves fully is not the same thing as self-abnegating workaholism. To do our utmost and give ourselves fully is only possible when we are authentically ourselves. We can only be authentically ourselves when we wholeheartedly participate in the rituals that mediate our interpersonal relationships. In those interpersonal relationships we find opportunities to perform our excellences and also be replenished by the excellences of others.

To do our utmost (zhong 忠) is a matter of personal resolve, but it’s not enough to make an oath, we also must make good on our words (xin 信). To be as consistent as possible between our words and our actions requires that we have an effective plan and the demonstrate the discipline to follow through. In other words, we need a solid methodology and process for doing our utmost and making good on our word. That’s where shu 恕 comes into play.

Shu 恕, empathy, and Golden Rules

D.C. Lau tells us that when we are able to do our utmost (zhong 忠) we are then able to put into effect what we have found out by the method of shu 恕. Confucius himself tells his students at one point that all of his teachings are bound together with one continuous thread:

“The way of [Confucius] is doing one’s utmost (zhong 忠) and putting oneself in the other’s place (shu 恕), nothing more.”

Analects 4.15

Doing UX work I’ve found the most utility from thinking with and acting on what I understand by this Confucian concept and it is thinking with this term that I’d like to spend the remainder of my time with you.

Anyone familiar with UX will hear the word “empathy” thrown around quite a bit. The UXer is often referred to as the person in the organization who is the voice of the user or customer. In order to communicate these voices from our customers and users it is necessary that the UX rely on their empathic ability to really hear what those people are saying.

But what is empathy? It began as an obscure technical term (einfühling, literally “feeling into”) used among German art historians in the late 19th century. Robert Vischer used the term to describe the process in which people project their emotions and ideas onto objects. This process of “feeling into” explained why folks so often say that they were moved by a piece of music, or became lost in a painting. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, drew on the teachings of these German art historians and proposed that psychoanalysts to suspend their judgements of the patients they observed and instead view them with empathy. Einfühling was translated from German by a British psychologist, Edward Titchener, creating “empathy” by borrowing from the Greek word empatheia (meaning, “to be in an emotional state”).

The paradox of empathy is that it is fundamentally a selfish feeling if the practitioner is not carefully trained. Consider again what it means to say we get lost in a powerful work of art. When we have such a powerful response to a work of art it is life-affirming because it allows us to project our own enjoyment of the art object out onto the rest of the world. When an artwork fails to elicit this response people will say things like, “I’m not feeling it,” or, “it’s impenetrable.”

This paradox in the definition of “empathy” is also present in the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”(Matthew 7:12 or Luke 6:31) If I were a literalist I might fail to hit the mark if I do unto others as I want them to do to me. For example, I love ice cream and I love my wife. If I give my wife ice cream because I would want her to give me ice cream I would inadvertently harm my wife because she’s lactose intolerant.

But why does this matter? A quick scan of the results from a search engine query for “golden rule UX” yields a number of recommendations. As UXers we’re trained to seek clarification when we receive these responses. We follow up on those statements and try to uncover what our respondents mean when they say those things. We want to know the how our software/product/service/etc. failed to move our respondent. We here in the States typically seek rules because rules guide us toward an outcome. Rules are generally issued by those in positions of authority and these rules set limits on what can or cannot be done. A rule reduces what we are allowed to do.

As a UXer I want to create moments, processes, and objects that foster relationships between us and that make our laboring more rewarding and less toilsome. I want to avoid the ice cream/lactose poisoning scenario, both professionally and interpersonally. And, of course, “I am not the user.” So maybe a golden rule isn’t precisely what I’m after. Here Confucianism may be of help.

One of Confucius’s students, Zigong, asked if there is a teaching that a practitioner can use throughout their lives. To this Confucius presented the term shu (恕), and said “Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.” (Analects 15.24) Zigong and Confucius discuss this a couple of times and from the written record we are left with the impression that Zigong (who was a wealthy merchant) struggled for some years to develop an adequate shu disposition. At another point Confucius tells Zigong—after once again discussing this golden rule—that “Being able to see an analogy in what is near at hand is the method of becoming human-hearted (ren 仁).” (Analects 6.30) Confucius tells his students at another point that doing one’s utmost (zhong 忠) while practicing shu is the single thread that unifies all of his teachings.

But what is shu 恕? There are a couple of ways we can translate it. It can be “sympathetic understanding,” and it can also mean, “deference.” The character is formed from two parts: ru 如, meaning “resemble” or “like,” and xin 心, meaning “heart-and-mind.” Traditional commentaries to the Analects help explain that shu means both “extending oneself to others” (dui ji ji wu 堆己及物)—it is like einfühling in this way—and shu also means “weighing others with oneself” (yi ji liang ren 以己量人) To understand shu as a methodology that I can apply in my professional life, I’ve found it useful to follow Ames and Hall’s counsel:

Shu is not simply taking oneself as the model and projecting it onto others; rather, it is first clarifying oneself in terms of others, and then either displaying excellence oneself or deferring to the excellence of others in personal relations.”

Hall and Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (289)

Let’s consider again the difference between a golden rule and a golden method. A rule is obeyed and it limits the actions we can take (a foul ball is an error we commit that goes against the rules of the game, say). A method is a technique that can be mastered by us in the sense that an artist masters their craft. I like to think of professional athletes and musicians in this way as well because both professional athletes and musicians literally embody what this method has shown them. In their mastery of their craft the practitioner is enabled to improvise; that is, to know when to try a different technique or tactic in a specific situation.

I have found this shu methodology to be critical to my ability to do tactical things you’d expect of a UXer, like interviewing respondents or facilitating workshops. When interviewing folks practicing deferential shu is enables me to both listen well to what the other person is communicating verbally and nonverbally and adjust my questions to address their situation (this is shu in the sense that I am deferring to that person’s experience and allowing them to bring forward more of themselves). The shu methodology requires that I not only defer to and draw forth the excellence of others, but also that I “see an analogy in what is near at hand.” This analogy-finding or metaphor-making is what we call “synthesizing the data” after an interview. It is also what a persona is supposed to be.

What I hope you take away from all this

  1. Your career is more than the accumulation of projects you’ve completed; it is a critical part of a flourishing life.
  2. Confucian philosophy has some helpful resources for developing our flourishing lives.
  3. Golden Rules and “empathy” are paradoxical