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Delivering modern user experiences thanks to the ancient principles of feng-shui

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The terms “Feng Shui” and “User Experience” have become very common references in today’s world, but it’s when you put these two principles together that we see the future of the business landscape.

It’s a global community today, and companies that want to secure the future of their company grasp this idea, and look for methods that bring the principals from both the East and West together in order to develop a successful customer experience (CX).

For more than 6000 years, the Chinese have been using Feng Shui to design just about everything in their lives, from architecture; to urban planning; to furnishing and daily tools. The foundation of Feng Shui is rooted in thousands of years of sophisticated theoretical hypothesis and tested real-life applications.

In global terms, Feng Shui deals with the harmony between people and their surroundings, and is the oldest, yet most pedigree framework, which puts human insights at the center of strategy and design.

Being in the 21st century, design has advanced from traditional physical objects and spaces to digital systems. User experience design (often referred to as UX) is the design of human experiences interfacing with a system; the system could be a website, a mobile app or a smart device and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).

However, the key principles of how to design for the harmony between people and the surroundings are still as relevant and applicable as they have always been (and will always be).

“Through my education and into my career, my vision has been about the merging of science and art, while in search of the ultimate harmony of ‘the self’ and ‘the other’; the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’; and the ‘virtual presence’ and the ‘physical reality’,” said Bo Zou, Founder of BOZ UX. “This has naturally lead me to my ultimate career path in Experience Strategy and Design.”

Bo Zou, also known as Boz, is Founder of BOZ UX, and currently Head of UX at HeathWallace Asia, a JWT owned digital user experience company committed to creating more human-friendly experiences and sustainable solutions for leading brands. To further understand this global strategy, Boz explored nine of the core Feng Shui principles with me, and how they apply to digital experience design today.

1) Treat All Design as Part of an Integrated and Holistic System (整体系统原则)
1) Treat All Design as Part of an Integrated and Holistic System (整体系统原则) Nike+ Ecosystem

1) Treat All Design as Part of an Integrated and Holistic System (整体系统原则)

In the Feng Shui paradigm, the environment is considered to be an integral system as a whole, with Man at the center, including all things “under Heaven and on Earth.” Each of the individual components does not stand-alone; they are mutually connected, mutually restrained, mutually dependent, mutually opposing and mutually transforming.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

When designing digital experiences, physical and various digital channels need to work coherently to provide a holistic consistent brand experience. User experience is cumulative across all channels and touch-points, as opposed to working in isolation. Designing for the entire brand ecosystem is the key for this principle.  

Example: Nike+ Ecosystem

2) Make Designs Responsive So That It’s Suitable and Appropriate to the Restrictions and Limitations of the Surroundings (因地制宜原则)
2) Make Designs Responsive So That It’s Suitable and Appropriate to the Restrictions and Limitations of the Surroundings (因地制宜原则) Obama Campaign Website Responsive Design

2) Make Designs Responsive So That It’s Suitable and Appropriate to the Restrictions and Limitations of the Surroundings (因地制宜原则)

Every site has its limitation and advantages. Some places are only suitable for residential use, while others are more suitable for commerce or manufacturing. This creates a need to determine what a site is best suitable for, allowing the resultant development to be “Ziran” (natural), and not forced or out of balance with its surroundings.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Responsive design has become more and more crucial for successful customer experiences. People now interact with brands on a variety of devices and platforms. Understanding the limitations and advantages of each touch point and environment is crucial for the optimal customer experience.

Example: Obama Campaign Website Responsive Design

3) Design for Context, Observe the Form and Examine the Configuration (观形察势原则)
3) Design for Context, Observe the Form and Examine the Configuration (观形察势原则) NatGeo - The Visual Context Creates a Great Experience

3) Design for Context, Observe the Form and Examine the Configuration (观形察势原则)

“Xing” (form) and “Shi” (configuration) co-exist in a complex spatial arrangement, and by observing the Form (Xing) and examining the Configuration (Shi) in their various layers of relationship, one can understand the “Original Character” (Benxing) of a site, and thus be able to create a building that will fit in naturally, and in a holistic way. That is being “Ziran” and “Wuwei” at the same time.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Conduct thorough research and insights of the environment before planning and design. What already exist, what are essential elements that will impact the design, and what assets / configurations could be leveraged in the design directly impacts the effectiveness of design. Always starts with the insights from understanding the subjects and contexts.

Example: NatGeo - The visual context creates a great experience

4) Design for Sustainability – Determine the Amount and the Standard (定量规定则)
4) Design for Sustainability – Determine the Amount and the Standard (定量规定则) Toms.com

4) Design for Sustainability – Determine the Amount and the Standard (定量规定则)

Feng Shui thinking has an affinity with sustainable development; the idea is that the population density of a place should be in proportion to the capacity it can sustain. In Feng Shui, where the water comes in and goes out is called the “Shui Kou”, and there is a standard and a guideline adhered to so the resource can keep up with the population growth. Many of the traditional towns and villages kept to this standard to survive.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Sustainability is a key principle of Feng Shui design, and in digital form – it means continuity and growth, other than short-lived disruptions. In order to design for sustainability, gaining insights into the human subjects and the environments is key, so that the right construct threshold can be determined. Additionally, the best experience design is also one that promotes the overall sustainability of the larger world.    

Example: Toms.com

5) Embrace and Leverage the Flow of Qi (顺 乘生气原则)
5) Embrace and Leverage the Flow of Qi (顺 乘生气原则) Citibank.com

5) Embrace and Leverage the Flow of Qi (顺 乘生气原则)

“Qi is the mother of water, when water stops, Qi stops. Water in turn follows the Qi flow and when water stops flowing, Qi also stops. There is a mutual feeling between the mother (Qi) and son (water) and they pursue each other. What is seen on the surface is water, what isn’t seen inside is Qi. To examine the movement of Qi on the ground, one can look at the coming and going of water to understand the movement.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Qi is the essential concept in Feng Shui. In modern terms, Qi can be translated as energy flow, or attention flow. In designing a digital experience, having a clear hierarchy and cognitive flow, so that it’s easy to follow and flow through naturally without hurdles, interruptions, or distractions, is key to success. Especially in mission critical experience designs, such as e-commerce and banking, having a seamless flow (Qi) is critical for lead generation and conversation, which directly impacts business success.  

Example: Citibank.com

6) Apply Symmetry Whenever Applicable, Suitably Locate Key Elements in the Center (适中居中原则)
6) Apply Symmetry Whenever Applicable, Suitably Locate Key Elements in the Center (适中居中原则) Apple.com

6) Apply Symmetry Whenever Applicable, Suitably Locate Key Elements in the Center (适中居中原则)

The reason why the historical capitals in China were never located in the coastal cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, or towards the borders like Harbin and Kuming, is because a capital must be centrally located. The same idea dictates that an urban business center is always located in the middle of a modern city and the best shops are always located in the middle of a shopping mall.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Whether it’s Feng Shui, or ancient Greek architecture, symmetry is key for desirable design of the space. Symmetrical design allows balance, simplicity and consistency. This also helps with defining clear hierarchy and structure, so that it’s much easier to understand and follow. In digital experience design, try placing the essential elements in the front and center of the experience so that customers can easily find them and follow the desired flow.   

Example: Apple.com

7) Aesthetic Matters (审美原则)
7) Aesthetic Matters (审美原则) Bang-Olufsen.com

7) Aesthetic Matters (审美原则)

Since both the Qi of the Form and the Qi of the Formless is perceived with one’s five senses and the mind, an aesthetic appreciation of a built form in its environment becomes an important part of Feng Shui. Because Qi can exist in the Form and the Formless, there is also the beauty of the Form and the beauty of the Formless.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Design is not just about functionality, but is more importantly pleasure and well-being. Aesthetics and beauty are essential aspects of pleasure and enjoyment. Not only should designs be made to be useful and usable, but also beautiful and enjoyable. The correct aesthetics also speaks most effectively to the right audience. Aesthetics vary by age group, gender and culture; therefore the correct aesthetics for the right audience and context must be developed. 

Example: Bang-Olufsen.com

8) Make Your Design Adaptive and Progressive (改造风水原则)
8) Make Your Design Adaptive and Progressive (改造风水原则) HSBC.co.uk

8) Make Your Design Adaptive and Progressive (改造风水原则)

In the process of enhancement, the natural environment should be respected at all times. If more than what the situation requires is destroyed (including the destruction of nature), then whatever improvement is achieved as a result will not be beneficial in the long run.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design?

Another essential principle of Feng Shui is to treat all designs and all systems as evolving and progressive entities. Therefore, continuous evaluation and improvements are always needed. In digital experience design, no design is ever considered final. Since people and the environment, as well as technologies, are constantly changing, progressive improvements are vital for the most up-to-date optimal designs.

Example: HSBC.co.uk

9) Balance Yin and Yang to Achieve Harmony (阴阳调和辩证原则)
9) Balance Yin and Yang to Achieve Harmony (阴阳调和辩证原则) Medium.com

9) Balance Yin and Yang to Achieve Harmony (阴阳调和辩证原则)

To find the balance and harmony in the environment, first distinguish what is Yin, and what is Yang in a given situation before adjusting and integrating them to transform the situation. In practice, when a situation is observed and analyzed to find the extremes, while also using the Yin Yang dialectics, the appropriate solution is lying somewhere within the bound of the two poles.

What does it mean in Digital Experience Design? 

Perhaps one of the most unique and essential principles in Feng Shui is the idea of Ying and Yang. In digital experience design, the Ying and Yang are best reflected in balancing contrasting properties of the elements. For example:

  1. Color: dark v/s light
  2. Texture: rough v/s smooth
  3. Motion: dynamic v/s static
  4. Orientation: horizontal v/s vertical

Balancing and mixing these contrasting properties will help bring visual interests and harmony to the design, thus enhancing the overall experience. Also, by using contrasting properties, this helps guide the eyes and focus on the most essential elements.

Example: Medium.com

Final Thoughts
Final Thoughts Industry Expert - Bo Zou

Final Thoughts

“Feng Shui is already engrained in the daily lives with consumers in the East, and in many areas throughout the world today,” said Bo Zou, Founder of BOZ UX. “This introduction of Feng Shui into the customer experience design is an obvious and important step to ensure success in this very global business world since the businesses refusing to think globally will prove to be a threat to their very existence.”

It’s the fresh perspective and new way of thinking about design that comes with the principles of Feng Shui that makes it a perfect compliment to the Western digital strategy. Feng Shui goes far beyond just colors and placement, as it’s this way of thinking and an approach to life and design that enhances the overall user experience.

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