Why Discovering a Product’s Truth is Important to UX: Zen and the Art of Experience Design


“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

More than two decades ago I had the opportunity to work with a team commissioned by a multinational beverage corporation to analyze drink vending machines with the goal of improving the customer’s experience. It was one of my first applications of QFD. Quality Function Deployment is an approach to identifying user needs and translating them into product specifications to meet those needs, and was developed in Japan in the 60’s by Yoji Akao; essentially gathering the subjective and creating objective specifications.

Integral to the process was identifying those qualities of a product that had the most value to the user, ensuring that designers and engineers focused their energies on those essential product features. In hindsight, it was an unwieldy but useful tool for developing an experience.


Video captured users and their interactions with the machines, with random follow up interviews…. a great deal of time was spent understanding the experience, and resulting frustrations, of typical vending machine users. Our research showed that users simply wanted to get the drink they selected, quickly, and the change they were due. After recommending solutions to improve the user experience, we learned of the many barriers the vending machines had built in, such as controls to limit the kind of change given (if at all), and a delay for delivering product caused by anti-theft solutions. It was disheartening to learn there wasn’t much we could do to improve on the consumer’s simple request.


I recalled the vending machine exercise after hearing of Robert Persig’s passing in early 2017. Persig wrote a book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read in Zen and the Art of Experience Designhigh school. The book introduced me to eastern philosophy and has influenced me and my relationship to products ever since. Persig uses a narrative with motorcycles and their mechanical maintenance for metaphors to compare western and eastern philosophical ideas. Truth is a recurring theme in his book and is a basic principle in much of eastern philosophy. Truth is an ideal to be identified, discovered, questioned….it is part of the spiritual quest. Truth brings with it tranquility.


And truth’s connection to good product and experience design is not lost on me. Good solutions embody the truth of what they are and do. A product’s truth lies in the user need it serves, and the best designers bring out the truth in an inspiring way and make more of an object than it already is. Breville produces a toaster with an “a bit more” button, a tricky mechanical solution but an inspiring feature the in-house design team added that underscores the toasting truth, perfect toast. Not toast and coffee, or toast with an egg, but toast perfected. Alternately Facebook may have lost its way in its effort to stay relevant by flipping to a service to monetize from a service to users. Adding news feeds, targeted advertising, etc. is in conflict with its original truth that made it so popular, connecting friends.


Identifying and maintaining the product’s truth through the development and marketing cycles can be a wicked challenge. The list of stakeholders for a product can be complicated and can include users, the company, the brand, the buyer, the purchaser, etc. They bring their own objectives to the product/experience and aren’t necessarily aligned with the user’s essential need, much less each other’s. A strong customer focused vision from the beginning, deep user empathy throughout, and full-spectrum research with plenty of user testing can improve a product’s odds of capturing and preserving the truth. In addition, applying the Agile principles of collaboration, iteration and adaptive development are useful when navigating complex problems and solutions through most product development steps.


As Buddha has been quoted, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”


Read More in THINK