Bringing User Experience to life with Sumi-e

In the form of Zen painting called Sumi-e simplicity is key. Every line conveys meaning, and only what is necessary to convey that meaning is included. Emotion is conveyed to the user because the painter banishes conscious thought and paints through feeling their subject matter. The end result is a painting that is alive, because it was painted entirely in the moment.

Sumi-e: the minimum number of strokes to convey intended meaning.

User Experience is centered around emotion, because end user behavior is governed by it. In web development we want to take the shortest path to the strongest user behavior. To do that we must understand, harness, and convey emotion. The practice of Sumi-e has a lot of parallels with the practice of UX that we can draw on to bring us closer to the ideal of conveying pure emotion.

Emotion only happens in the moment. Therefore successful web development must help users live in the moment as well. A stale, derivative site does not breathe, is not alive, and will simply remind users of other time and places. A fresh site where each pixel is meaningful and only includes what is necessary for that meaning to be conveyed will create the space for users to live in the moment of that experience.

There is no set template for creating an experience. Our experiences are made up of so many small, often subtle factors that data collection and surveys might pass on by. The practice of Sumi-e type web development keeps us safe from many poor decisions by allowing the user’s own experience to dominate, and hones our intuitive sense of whats needed to convey meaning by actively practicing simplicity and removing our Self from the result.

In addition, as web development and user experience matures customer expectations do as well. A UI element that used to surprise and delight becomes standard and no longer contributes to an “experience”. The car industry is a good parallel: over 130 years engineering standards have developed and all drivers have an expectation of where each part will be in a car. Yet despite the similarities of each vehicle drivers still report good and bad driving experiences and cars continue to evoke strong emotions and become part of a user’s expression of self.

Solely working from data about the functional experience of driving would not give car manufacturers the insights they need into the shifting and evolving experiences that drivers are hungry for. Similarly UX must move well beyond functional UI. Sumi-e is a technique for communicating pure emotion with minimal trappings, getting out the way of our message. As developers we can also strip out the superfluous so that meaning is conveyed with simplicity and leaves space for users to have a positive emotional experience.

Here are a few Sumi-e rules for web teams to live by:

  • Never use more when less will do.
  • Omit superflous details to expose true meaning.
  • Every created object charges the negative space around it. There is no emptiness.
  • What looks easy is hard.
  • Emotion only exists in the moment and superfluous detail distracts the viewer’s attention from the moment they are experiencing.
  • A good design pleases by remaining in the background. The user’s own experience is in the foreground.

Do you incorporate the principles of Sumi-e, or other Zen practices, into your UX process?