Beginner’s Mind

In Zen Buddhism, a beginner’s mind encourages openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconception. For designers, this is a good method to find the next great opportunity to innovate.


A few weeks back I gave an ignite talk to the Salesforce UX team. The ignite talk is a variation of Pecha Kucha where speakers have only 5 minutes to talk about a subject with a total of 20 slides and only 15 seconds for each. While Pecha Kucha was originally invented in Tokyo as a social event format for young designers to meet, showcase work, and exchange ideas, we’ve adopted this format as a great platform to share thoughts and have fun with peer designers.

The topics at our ignite talk ranged from design lessons learned on the race track to why we all should read more children’s books, from shocking facts of design accessibility to things we can change for homeless people in San Francisco. It was fantastic to learn a few more things about my co-workers and their interests in such dynamic format. I chose my topic ‘beginner’s mind’ using my own perspective and stories as a Chinese immigrant to America and how it has informed my product design thinking throughout my career and at Salesforce.

I began my talk with my favorite topic: food.

I still remember my first Chinese meal in America. I went with my lab mates at the University of Maryland to a local Shanghai-style restaurant. The food was delicious and the service was great. At the end of the meal our server brought us the bill with fortune cookies and take-out boxes — It was my first time, as a native Chinese, to see these two things. I was very curious and exclaimed: “This cookie is strangely shaped and oh, there’s a slip with numbers in it!” My labmates looked at me in shock as they all had thought that the fortune cookie and the take-out box should have been everywhere in China — just like they can be found everywhere here in American Chinese restaurants.

Turns out it’s not true. Fortune cookies and take out boxes are rarely seen in China. The first modern fortune cookie was made in Kyoto, Japan in 19th century and called omikuji and the take-out box was invented by American and was originally used as a container for oysters. These two items weren’t Chinese at all!

When human beings have seen something so many times, they stop asking questions about it. As humans, we habituate and internalize what we’re accustomed to into our belief system, and use it to interpret the world around us. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this — our world-view gives us perspective and makes the world a more predictable place. It is how we can stay attentive to things that we want to focus on.

Remember the first time you sat behind the wheel? All the traffic lights, stop signs, and pedestrians seemed to pop at you. You couldn’t talk to friends — in my case especially in a second language! But after a few weeks, these things began to become invisible, and you are able to drive “normally” and might even be able to attend a conference call on the road.

Internalizing something, however, does not necessarily mean it has no impact on people’s lives. Take my first “American elevator” experience for instance. One time I wanted to go to the 24th floor of a tall office building, I was very confused on which button to push. Since most of the elevators in China has only one visual cue (see left), for someone like me who had just seen an American elevator panel for the first time (see right), the black round block with braille on it looked like the buttons while the white button looked like light indicators. I was very glad that I was the only one in the elevator when I tried to push the black button several times without success.

After I gave my ignite talk, many people commented on more such examples when they came to the U.S. from other countries that how gas stations and water faucets caused some funny stories/usability issues.

Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest Labs and one of the inventors of the iPod, once said “As humans, we get used to ‘the way things are’ really fast. But for designers, the way things are is an opportunity”. Just because people get used to how something works doesn’t mean it is how it should work. Great designers seize opportunities like these as chances to innovate.

“As human beings, we get used to ‘the way things are’ really fast. But for designers, the way things are is an opportunity” — Tony Fadell

初心” or shoshin (beginner’s mind in English) is this concept in Zen Buddhism about having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. For beginners, everything is waiting to be discovered, discussed, and explored. The opposite side to shoshin is the expert’s mindset where constraints are obvious, solutions are clear & few. It is so easy to lose our beginner’s mind as we become experts in a topic. It is so easy to let assumptions and habits push us to conclusions. Often, we miss the opportunities to improve from the way things are while there can be the underlying innovation to push our design to the next level. That’s why we all need to train our mind and work hard to practice the beginner’s mindset.

“the wise person is one who doesn’t lose the child’s heart and mind” — Mencius, 4th century b.c.

So how do we practice it?

  1. The first step is knowing that we oftentimes inherit an expert’s mindset: Next time you are stuck with a challenge, remind yourself that an expert’s mind sees more constraints and fewer possibilities. Beginner’s mind shelves all preconceptions, conditions, and conclusions and looks at the problem with a fresh perspective.
  2. Ask questions: Be mindful about what is fact and what is an assumption. Be aware that there’s a difference between how things work and how things should work — we can always improve how things should work in different technological, societal contexts.
  3. Notice details: Especially ephemeral frustrations when your customer interact with your product. They might think it is OK how it is currently or not a big deal after all, but this could be the next awesome delightful moment that surprises your customer pleasantly and engenders deeply rooted trust.

The first step is probably the most difficult one. But the potential of this practice is ineffable. I want to invite all of you to step back to beginners again, find the next product innovation from the way things are.


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