Gung Fu & Designing Experiences Part III: A Stone at a Time

For the long game, keep your eye on the prize, but remember to focus on building the steps to getting you there.

Phillip Le
Oct 12, 2015 · 6 min read

This is Part III of an
Over the next several weeks, I will continue to publish a series regarding the use of gung fu principles in developing oneself as an experience designer.

In my own way, I am keeping myself honest with my philosophy, writing a piece a week, one stepping stone at a time, to hopefully bridge the gap between my own attempts at explaining congruency between experience design and gung fu.

At the onset of solving a design challenge, like much else in life, planning for the task seems insurmountable. Projects are large and their scopes seemingly infinite. Getting from where we are now to where we want to be as an end product is too abstract. Each design problem is a new journey and with new journey comes new experiences.

Standing from a distance, journeys can seem exhilarating — as they should! But often times, they can also feel daunting until we begin. Even once we consider why and how we should begin, the reward is a long way off, which is what leads many people to procrastinate. It is much easier to feel the instant gratification of a distraction than it is to toil onward. And so we falter. But until we take that first step, the whole journey can feel insurmountable.

Making It Surmountable

Luckily, focusing on process and developing strategies can help sure-up a lot of unknowns. While process and strategy won’t provide all the answers, they will provide a roadmap for which those answers can be revealed.

A colleague of mine, Drew Christiano, and I share a sentiment we call “UX-ing your life” — that a lot of the goals we try to achieve in life are indeed UX problems and can be solved as such.

Things feel insurmountable precisely because we are striving for an ideal state, a place of perfectionism. And any time we think in the context of perfectionism, it wrests us away from focusing on the process of excelling to instead focus on only the end results. The distinctions between perfectionism and excellence are subtle, but important. I once read:

Excellence can be reached by staying focused on the path (process), NOT the outcome.

Outcome in this context is different than goal. A goal exists as a thing achieved, whereas outcome in the light of perfection means being right once we’ve arrived.

There is nothing wrong with having a goal, an overall vision. But upon arriving at a vision for what we want to create, where we want to be, thinking about how one gets there becomes important. Once the how is figured out, following through with the plan determines whether or not we really have a chance of getting there at all.

And upon establishing that vision, we must ultimately lay the first stone from which we can establish a foundation, a place to plant our foot forward.

There are a lot of similarities between bridge building and agile design/development methodology. In gung fu, we want to be agile in our movements; in our processes for learning and applying what we’ve learned we also want to be nimble in our thinking, and our planning.

These steps are familiar to those working in agile development processes and product teams working in sprints. Starting with epics, broken down to user stories, to prototyping, to testing, validating, and iterating, this nimble process be applied towards any goal.

  1. Start with an Epic: What am I solving and have I done as much research as I can regarding the problem?
  2. Create User Stories: What are the specific tasks required to solve the problem?
  3. Design: Begin solving, one task at a time.
  4. Review: Review the holistic solution.
  5. Iterate: Revise and version to continue improvement.

When UX-ing my life or teaching gung fu, I apply a similar trajectory as the above:

  1. Start with intent: Where do I want to be?
  2. Plan the bridge: How am I going to get there?
  3. Build the bridge: Initiate the plan.
  4. Reflect: Take a step back to reassess progress.
  5. Readjust: Revise and adapt to continue improvement.

Eye on the Prize

There comes a point where theorizing and planning, while fun, must give way to actual work, the doing of the project. , we mentioned that becoming a designer of experiences and designing experiences is a lot like gung fu: it takes a lot of hard work over an extended period of time.

This can become difficult as trudging through the same idea looses the excitement it had in the beginning. There are days when training basics in gung fu seem not only boring, but futile. It’s hard to see the progress, sometimes, when you’re in the thick of the effort.

Social psychologist Emily Balcetis explores perception, motivation, goal-setting and decision-making from conscious and nonconscious levels.

But as says, keep your “eye on the prize.”

“But people who had committed to a manageable goal that they could accomplish in the near future, and who believed that they were capable of meeting that goal, actually saw the exercise as easier… Keep your eye on the prize. This is not a slogan from an inspirational poster. It’s an actual directive.”

“But wait,” you’ll say. Isn’t that the warning I presented earlier between perfectionism and excellence? Isn’t focusing on the end of the destination a detriment to the process at hand?

It all returns to purpose, as mentioned in a previous piece, The intention for focusing on the prize is important here, in context with care and excellence. The focus isn’t to be finished, to be right, or to be perfect. The prize with which our eyes are beholden is in the result of something nurtured through iteration and meaningful craft.

Furthermore, by breaking down the large vision into achievable steps, the prize becomes “prizes”, nodes of focus we can target and accomplish. Thus, as in most things, accomplishing a goal, a journey, begins with a plan and then manifests itself in the mastery of tension — focusing on the goal — and relaxation — flowing towards it.

Taking this approach, you won’t have that goal dominated by tomorrow. But what step can you take today that will get you closer, even by the inch? As my colleague, states, “I’m one for small gains over a longer period of time.” In other words, approach the crossing of the bridge you build with the essence of gung fu.

Feet on the Road

Breaking a vision down to achievable, focused bits allows the constructive chaining of progress. Accomplishing a single step will allow another to surface, providing us with the ability to plant our foot forward until we move purposefully forward. In gung fu, we call this bridging. In the design world, this is project mapping.

It takes a lot of hard work to develop proficiency in any sort of craft — focus on the long game.

Thanks to Drew Christiano.

Phillip Le

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Full-time curioso living at the intersection of strategy and design. All opinions are my own.