Buddhism & Product Design: The Four Noble Truths

Designing effective products to help end users’ suffering

Photo by Dan Gold
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” — The Dalai Lama

As a product designer, my purpose is designing experiences that help people and improve their lives.

Over the past few years, I’ve been exploring the fields of product design and Buddhist philosophy. Though spirituality and technology may seem to differ on a fundamental level, I’ve found there to be an overlap between product design strategy and Buddhist philosophy. Learning more about Buddhism has helped me understand design and learning more about design has helped me understand Buddhism.

Like good design, Buddhist philosophy is practical, logical and grounded in reality. A central teaching of Theravada Buddhism is “The Four Noble Truths” by the Dalai Lama. The first is the truth of suffering, followed by the truth of the origin of suffering, then the truth of the cessation of suffering and finally, the truth of the path leading to this cessation. In short, suffering exists and we all strive to find a way to end suffering.

The main goal of designing effective products is to help people, improve their experiences and find a way to end, or at least minimize, their suffering. In designing products, some of our central truths include understanding users through empathy, understanding the problem through research, creating a usable and effective solution, and the process of getting from research to result.

The First Truth: Empathy

The first noble truth is the truth of suffering: suffering exists, suffering is a big part of our lives and experiencing suffering is inevitable. Though this may sound pessimistic, the presence of suffering is real and we cannot ignore it. Acknowledging the existence of suffering allows us not only to understand ourselves, but to understand others as well.

To know that there is suffering helps create a strong sense of empathy, which is a key factor of successful product design. Designers must understand users’ holistic experience in order to design with empathy in mind. The Dalai Lama goes on to explain the different types and realms of suffering, showing that suffering isn’t just black and white but has a complex array of manifestations in our lives.

Anne Gibson points out in her Alphabet of Accessibility Issues that every individual has their own unique accessibility needs ranging from physical to mental to contextual. We all suffer, each in our own way. As designers, its our job to acknowledge these hardships, understand them, and create accessible solutions. In order to create effective and widely usable products, we must design with a diverse set of accessibility needs in mind and feel empathy towards our users to understand their suffering.

The Second Truth: Research

Now we know that suffering exists, but why? In the second noble truth, we learn the origin of suffering. This curiosity to uncover the cause of suffering teaches us that we must not only acknowledge problems, but we must seek to understand them down to their core.

The Dalai Lama explains that the cause of suffering is attachment. Looking deeper, the cause of attachment is desire and the cause of desire is ignorance. This taps into an important concept of Buddhism: dependent origination, the idea that all things arise from preexisting things.

This concept of deeply understanding problems is critical to a successful design process. In user research, we can identify pain points in users’ experiences and through chains of questioning. By continually asking “why?,” we can uncover the origin of each factor that contributes to suffering and set goals to solve those problems.

The Third Truth: Solution

The third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering: the end of suffering is both possible and inevitable. There is a solution out there and it is certain. Even though it’s easy to forget at times, we have to remember that suffering will end. In the design process, it’s easy to get caught up in the details, get stuck on a problem and fear that a solution is not possible.

Another important concept in Buddhism is impermanence: everything is constantly changing and all things that arise will eventually pass away. Suffering is no different — it is not permanent, constantly changing and will eventually come to an end. Usability problems are constantly changing. Each time we iterate and test a new solution, we find new problems and must brainstorm solutions for those as well. Nonetheless, a solution, an end to suffering, is both possible and inevitable.

The Fourth Truth: Process

At this point, we’ve identified that there is suffering, the cause of suffering is deep rooted in attachment, and that it is both possible and inevitable that suffering will end. But how exactly do we get from suffering existing to suffering ending?

The fourth and final noble truth is the truth of the path leading to cessation. This Eightfold Path is the suggested journey to end suffering and find enlightenment. It is comprised of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration, and right mindfulness. These eight are then grouped into three categories: wisdom — understanding and accepting how things are, morality — being an honest and good person, and meditation — practice through mindful and skillful means. For designers, knowledge, ethics and implementation are core pillars to creating effective product solutions.

Since the cause of suffering is attachment, individuals following the Eightfold path must be careful of becoming too attached to the journey because that will only lead them back into more suffering.

Product design is also very process-based. There are general best practices of the design process including research, collaborative brainstorming, implementation/design, user testing, iteration, etc. The best designers, however, understand that each problem requires a unique process to develop the right solution. Designers must understand the design process but allow for flexibility to figure out the unique path to achieving their end result.

The path to ending suffering is lengthy and iterative. Buddhists believe that through reincarnation, individuals have numerous opportunities to strive towards the goal of enlightenment, which will ultimately liberate them from the cycle of birth and death and into Nirvana. In design, we fortunately don’t have to wait a lifetime between iterations of working towards our goal. After ideating a solution, designing, and testing, we can brainstorm a new solution and begin the process again.

Conclusion

The journey from suffering to enlightenment isn’t short and isn’t easy but it’s said to be well worth it. Likewise, the process of designing effective products is also time-consuming and challenging. In our process, we must strive to understand our users, understand the problem, create an effective solution, and be thoughtful of the process to get there.

Through design, we have an incredible power to help people and improve their experiences. If we follow the path with an open mind, we can meet success and make a positive impact on the lives of our users and help them to end their suffering.