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UX the Bruce Lee Way

by Joseph Dickerson
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Many of the guiding principles that made Bruce Lee a master martial artist can help you become a master designer.

As a UX professional I take inspiration from a great many things. Since I’m also a big pop culture geek, that’s the biggest well I draw from. I’ve read a lot of entertainment biographies lately, and the latest was about famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. As I was reading The Bruce Lee Story (written by his wife) I was pleased to note that he, too, believed in borrowing ideas and techniques from other fields.

“Expose yourself to various conditions and learn … Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”

Following his advice, I’ve identified some key lessons Bruce Lee taught and lived by that are applicable to experience design. What design lessons can be learned from a late, great action star? Quite a few, it turns out.


“It’s not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

When Lee was planning his training and forming his martial art moves, he was focused on simplifying everything: move only when necessary, use only the muscles needed (this resulted in the creation of his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do). Can this be applied in interaction design? Of course, and we have already seen this trend propagate throughout countless designs.

Stripping away the unnecessary elements allows users to focus on the task at hand. Why have multiple questions to setup an account when you can use single sign-on services and/or a single password? Why show advanced options on the same screen that the basic options are on? Simplifying UI designs, like simplifying martial arts moves, allows you to do more with less.

Be Aware Of Context And Surroundings

“Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind, there is perception.”

Designing with out awareness is designing in the dark. Understanding users and the context of their surroundings allows you design the right solution. A desktop app works one way, a mobile app that people use while walking around a warehouse needs to work in a completely different way.

Open Your Mind

Bruce Lee often told students that if they already thought they “knew” everything, they should leave his class.

“If your cup is full, you cannot fill it. So first, empty your cup.”

As you start to design something, step away from your preconceptions. The wonderful thing about UX is the ability to learn new industries, research users and what they do, and then provide solutions to make their lives better. This requires following a user-centered design process, but it also requires starting with no assumptions and bias. Good design solutions come from that fresh, open mind.

Be Flexible—Be Like Water

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”

Follow a proper design process, but don’t be dogmatic about it. Be flexible, and approach each design project within the confines that exist. I have a colleague who thinks that an extensive two-month ethnographic study should occur before ANY design is done. In business environments this is often a rare luxury, and he is frustrated much of the time because he is rigid in this belief. Taking such a dogmatic stand is affecting both his professional reputation and costing him opportunities. Don’t be intransigent—be flexible. Be like water.

Understand The Difference Between Catastrophe And An Inconvenience

“Know the difference between a catastrophe and an inconvenience. To realize that it’s just an inconvenience, that it is not a catastrophe, but just an unpleasantness, is part of coming into your own, part of waking up.”

When we are designing solutions for users, we must be aware of the design problems we are solving, and focus our energies appropriately. Spend the right time working on the right problem, and try to identify the core things that need solving: the things that are genuine “catastrophes.”

Own your Mistakes

“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them”

I’ve met many insecure designers who are afraid of failure; who don’t like doing usability tests because it would reveal flaws in the work they have done. They are losing out on a key opportunity to grow by accepting and learning from mistakes. This is a lesson applicable in UX as in life.

Design Your Own Way

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Take inspiration from other designers, follow best practices, but don’t try and emulate other people’s design style. Be your own person, make the designs your own … and stretch the boundaries of design and innovation. If you do that, you may stumble upon the next new thing and design something that adds value to millions of people’s lives.

So you see, many of the principles that Bruce Lee lived by are as applicable to the martial artist as they are the UX practitioner. Use these principles to master UX in the same way Lee mastered his craft.

“It’s not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”—Bruce Lee

All quotes by Bruce Lee.


Image of Bruce Lee statue courtesy Shutterstock

post authorJoseph Dickerson

Joseph Dickerson, Joseph Dickerson is a writer, technologist, and user experience lead who specializes in "next-gen" experiences and products. A designer of multiple mobile and Internet applications, he has worked to make technology easier and better fo users for over a decade. The author of several books, including a primer on user experience design, Experience Matters, Dickerson is a regular contributor to many websites as well as editor of This Week in UX, This Week in Geek and The Twin Peaks Gazette. He recently completed his second book on UX, UX 101.

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