As designers, and especially as consultants, we’re thrown into new industries and disciplines on almost every project we take on. While some designers might choose to specialize in design for healthcare or finance, even if they are not doctors or nurses or finance experts themselves. The nature of our work is to enter a new environment or context and learn as much as we can about the subject matter to inform our design work. This might mean that we must quickly ramp up and understand wealth management in order to redesign an investing product or service for a bank, or learn about the justice system in Canada so we can redesign how law clerks, lawyers, and judges manage and track court cases.
Fundamentally, designers are experts in the human-centered design process and how to apply it in various contexts. We use design thinking to understand the problem space, get to know the people at the centre of a system, and then redesign the experience to be more delightful and seamless. Whether that experience is a web application or a behind-the-scenes business process, the same applies. As such, we are almost always novices in the work landscape we find ourselves in, and we approach our work through the beginner’s mindset.
There are many reasons to adopt a beginner’s mindset in UX and design thinking! It’s the key to innovation, and even if you aren’t a designer, you too should look to take on this way of thinking in your work.
This blog will cover:
- What it means to have a beginner’s mindset.
- How to get experts like stakeholders and company leaders to come from a beginner’s lens and how to adopt a beginner’s mindset.
- Our favourite activities for inspiring a beginner’s mindset.
Let’s get started!
What is a beginner’s mindset?
As designers, we assume a beginner’s mindset and approach all of our work this way. This means that we tackle the job from the lens of a novice, we assume we don’t know the answers, and as a result, we can ask more questions and see new perspectives and opportunities that others may not. We are experts in the human-centered design process, not the subject of what we are designing.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
– Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
The term “beginner’s mindset” dates way back to the Japanese Zen Buddism paradox, “the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.” Foundationally, the beginner’s mindset relates to meditation and mindfulness. When we keep our minds open and curious, we are more likely to discover new things, make stronger choices, and show empathy towards the world around us. So, you can see how this directly relates to design work. We are meant to strip a problem down to its core, consider every possibility, and uncover unique solutions – you won’t get very far doing that if you believe you know everything there is to know.
Sometimes people shy away from assuming a beginner’s mindset because they are worried they will look foolish or receive judgment for not knowing all the answers. In society, we’re taught to appear like we know it all, often hearing sayings like, “fake it ‘til you make it.” In reality, we don’t always know what we’re doing, and that’s okay. While there are some advantages to that mentality, fear of not knowing can also inhibit people from challenging the status quo, understanding the entire picture, and asking questions that could blow the doors open on an innovative way of doing things.
To illustrate this concept, consider the example of creating an account with a traditional bank and the amount of information required from customers to do so. Banks are an institution which have existed for a very long time, and their processes have remained largely unchanged for 50 years. Employees working for the bank might not even think to question why this information needs to be gathered from the customer or how that information will be used, they simply collect it because it needs to be. Bringing the beginner’s mindset to this example of redesigning a signup or account creation experience for banking, a designer could ask questions like: “Why do you do it this way?” “What’s the reason for this?” “Is there a different way you could get this information?” “Is it useful or necessary to gather this information from customers?” “Where do you use this information later in the process?” “What does this field mean?” “What does this acronym stand for?” Through asking these basic, beginner-level questions, those answering them can also start to question age-old beliefs and policies that have existed for a long time (which may no longer be relevant.)
As Einstein said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” That is at the crux of a beginner’s mind.
To summarize, approaching your work from a beginner’s mindset will allow you and your team to:
- Ask questions and see new perspectives
- Challenge the status quo
- Find new opportunities for innovation
- Listen without judgment and be curious
- Spark creativity
- Focus on what could be possible rather than what has previously limited us
The Fuzzy Front-End of Design
During the early stages of the UX or service design process, there is a ton of uncertainty. We call this the “fuzzy front-end” of design. The beginner’s mind is a useful approach to take when dealing with this ambiguity because it teaches us not to jump to solutions. As humans, it’s natural to always look for a solution, but in design, we must first understand and identify the problems. You have to get comfortable with discomfort! Encourage clients (and yourself) to get cozy with ambiguity. In this type of project, you don’t know the answers or what you will uncover – it takes time to gather all the data, and nothing will seem clear. In fact, you and the client may be wondering, will we ever reach a solution? What are we even learning here? It feels very messy, but the beauty is that through the process and “making sense of data” you will get the answers you need.
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The 5-step HCD process is always the same! What we tweak are the tools and research activities, the questions we ask, and who we talk to based on the project’s goals.
How to get stakeholders to understand the beginner’s mindset?
By now, you should understand that it’s completely okay not to know all the answers at the onset of a project! But how do you help other people (like stakeholders) understand it? And not just conceptually, but also practically? We often have clients try to rush ahead, skip the research, and ask us to just get to the design part. After all, it’s so fun when you get to see a tangible design mockup or prototype of an app come to life. But this is where proper project planning comes in.
Our top tips for helping stakeholders embrace a beginner’s mindset:
- Set expectations upfront (during project initiation and the project kick-off.) Let them know that sometimes it may seem like you are asking silly questions, but this is because you will approach the work from a beginner’s mindset – then use the beginning of this blog post to explain what a beginner’s mindset is and why it matters!
- Ask them to trust the process. Explain that it will feel messy, but it’s sure to work! You might have to remind them of this frequently, but it will be worth it.
- Bring them along on the journey. Encourage them to ask questions and think critically about their current ways of working – is it genuinely working well for them?
- During the project kick-off explain the 5-step HCD process and the “fuzzy front end.” Add a few slides to your presentation about ambiguity and ask them to expect that this process will feel uncomfortable
- Find ways to champion the HCD process to stakeholders at the beginning and throughout the project.
How to start adopting a beginner’s mindset?
Now that you appreciate the value of approaching things as a beginner, whether you are a designer or not, what can you do to start bringing this mindset into your everyday work?
The best way is to start asking yourself and others questions! Be curious and look for more opportunities to have conversations with other business stakeholders, employees responsible for certain processes, and of course, with end-users and customers.
Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself to adopt a more human-centered lens and beginner’s mindset to your work:
- Why does this work process/experience exist? Get specific with each part of the process and ask “why” for each step.
- What things or processes have always existed in how we do business? Do those things help or detract from the user/customer/employee experience? Do they even need to be there, or are they extraneous? If someone pushes you on this, push back! Ask “why?” and get to the root cause.
- Who are the people affected by this system, process, experience, product, or service?
- How are or could their needs be considered?
- Have you talked to these people directly, or are you learning of their needs and pain points secondhand from others?
- Where are you making assumptions in your current work? Who could help you fill in the gaps in the process, system, or experience we are trying to improve?
- What types of questions can you ask yourself and others about the experience?
- Where would a human-centered approach add value and help create a more holistic understanding of the work?
Adopting a beginner’s mindset can feel intimidating, but our best advice is to ditch the fear, get comfortable not knowing all the answers, and open yourself up to the possibilities! This is the best way to make improvements and get closer to those innovative solutions.